Higgins braced for tough opener

Defending champion John Higgins believes his opening match with Matthew Stevens in the 888.com World Championship is “too tough to call.”

Defending champion John Higgins believes his opening match with Matthew Stevens in the 888.com World Championship is “too tough to call.”

Higgins is an odds-on favourite to beat two-time runner-up Stevens when the 17-day marathon gets under way in Sheffield this morning.

Stevens has dropped out of snooker’s elite top 16 and had to come through qualifying for the championships but has never lost a first-round match at the Crucible in 10 visits.

But Higgins has not been on top form either since lifting his second world title 12 months ago, a semi-final appearance in the Malta Cup the Scot’s best result this season.

“I can take a lot of positives from last year, I’m just hoping I can repeat the form I showed then,” Higgins said.

“But against Matthew it’s too tough a match to call.”

Higgins and Stevens kick-off the action at 10am and will play to a finish in their best-of-19 clash in the evening session.

Other matches on the opening day see Australian Neil Robertson take on former finalist Nigel Bond, Masters runner-up Stephen Lee against Northern Ireland’s Joe Swail and Ali Carter taking on Barry Hawkins.

Elsewhere in the first round, Hong Kong’s Marco Fu faces China’s Ding Junhui, a player often touted as a future world champion.

Ding, the 2005 UK champion, will be hoping to produce a better performance than on his Sheffield debut last year when he was thrashed 10-2 by Ronnie O’Sullivan in the first round.

Two other Chinese players are in the field, Liang Wenbo, who faces 1997 winner Ken Doherty, and 17-year-old Liu Chuang who takes on O’Sullivan.

“It feels so good, it’s every snooker player’s dream to play at the Crucible,” said Liu, who is based at the World Snooker Academy in Sheffield with Ding and Liang.

Provisional world number one Shaun Murphy is up against veteran Dave Harold and seven-time champion Stephen Hendry faces Mark Allen.

Welshman Ryan Day, who has leapt from 16th to seventh in the rankings, faces Irishman Michael Judge.

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