Ronnie O’Sullivan begins his Betfred.com World Championship campaign today – 11 days after ruling himself out of the tournament.
After first-round defeats at the UK Championship, Masters, Welsh Open and China Open, O’Sullivan heads into his match against Welshman Dominic Dale without any success at a major ranking event since September.
With his interest in the game waning apparently more than ever, there is huge interest in how 35-year-old O’Sullivan performs.
The winner of his clash with Dale, which finishes tomorrow, will face Shaun Murphy in the second round.
The prospect of facing snooker’s biggest enigma excites Murphy, but the 2005 champion said: “I’m not sure it’s a guarantee he’s going to win his opening match. It’s a long time since he won.”
O’Sullivan told World Snooker officials on Thursday, April 7 that he would not be travelling to Sheffield this year, but changed his mind the following day.
He is rated only fifth favourite for the Crucible title, which he has won three times, most recently in 2008, and the laid-back Dale, who at 39 came through the qualifying rounds, may fancy his chances.
Murphy, though, knows the biggest box office attraction in the game could still be a big threat this year, and he is wary of how O’Sullivan might perform against him should he overcome Dale.
“If it’s going to be O’Sullivan I’ll have to play well but I am playing well,” Murphy said.
Mark Williams, who beat his fellow Welshman Ryan Day 10-5 yesterday, has no doubt three-time winner O’Sullivan could sweep aside all competition.
“Yes, if he turns up,” Williams said.
“No one knows if he’s going to turn up, do they? He’s in, he’s out, he’s retired, he’s out of retirement. No one knows what’s going through his head.
“If he turns up and gives it 100%, for me he’s the one to beat. But in the last two tournaments he has turned up, Ryan (Day) has spanked him twice, and Dominic’s not going to be an easy game for him.”
Masters champion Ding Junhui should today convert an 8-1 lead over Jamie Burnett into a comfortable win, while the seven-time champion Stephen Hendry takes a 6-3 advantage into the concluding session of his match against Joe Perry.
Stoke’s Jamie Cope reached the second round with a 10-7 victory over Blackwood’s Crucible rookie Andrew Pagett, the world number 80.
Ali Carter knocked out another Stoke player, Dave Harold, 10-3.
But Harold’s day was already made by Stoke City’s 5-0 Wembley victory against Bolton in the FA Cup semi-finals.
He said: “I’ve got to be the happiest first-round loser in the history of the Crucible because my team won 5-0, so that’s cheered me up.”
The 44-year-old received a ’good luck’ card signed by Stoke’s players and manager Tony Pulis ahead of his match.
“I’ll frame that card and save it for the rest of my life,” he said.