With the Tour Championship now over there is one more tournament left in the snooker season and it gets underway on Monday when the World Championship Qualifiers start out as 128 hopefuls aim to be one of the 16 men who will book their spot at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
Before we get stuck into the matches from each day, there is time to have a look at the to qualify markets. Only the leading 16 players are exempt from the qualifiers and there are a number of players who will expect to be at the Crucible who will have to play out to get there.
It is a 128 player event but this competition should be thought of as 16 eight player groups with each group winner progressing to take their place in the main draw. The first round sees those ranked 81-128 in the world and the 16 invited players battling it out. The 32 winners then progress to take on players ranked 49-80. Those winners go through to meet someone ranked 17-48 in the third round and the 32 winners from that round meet in the final round with the winners going into the main draw. The first three rounds of the tournament are the best of 11 frames with the final round the traditional best of 19.
Ricky Walden narrowly missed out on a place in the main draw and he will be the leading seed in the qualifiers as a result of that. That puts him in Group 1 where the other main seed will be Li Hang. They are scheduled to meet in the final qualifying round while entering at the second round stage in this section will be Allan Taylor and Scott Donaldson. Four players will begin their quest in the first round here and they are Zhao Jianbo, the senior player Michael Judge, Alfie Burden and the Northern Ireland amateur Robbie McGuigan.
Liang Wenbo was expected to be the main draw in Group 2 but he has been suspended after being cautioned over the weekend so at the time of writing he isn’t going to be in the field. He won’t be replaced though so Lu Ning will face someone from the ranking bracket below him if he can make it through. The two players joining this section in the second round are Dominic Dale and Lyu Haotian. Given that the Wenbo half of the draw has suddenly opened up two of the first round entrants will fancy their chances here. They are Duane Jones and the women’s world champion Nutcharut Wongharuthai. The other two players are Xu Si and Michael Collumb.
If we were to design a ‘Group of Death’ it would definitely be Group 3 where the two leading seeds in it are Stephen Maguire and Zhou Yuelong, both of whom are ranking event finalists and who should really be at the tournament by right. The two men in this section who will be skipping the opening round are Sunny Akani and Andy Hicks while the first round entrants are Zhang Jiankang, John Astley who has already seen off Neil Robertson at the UK Championship this season, Zhang Anda and the Russian amateur Anton Kazakov.
The former Welsh Open champion Jordan Brown will be seeded to play off for a place in the main draw from Group 4. If this group goes with the seeding he will be facing Mark King in the final qualifying round. This is going to be a real group for the purists because the two men coming in during the second round are Martin O’Donnell and Fergal O’Brien. With no real standout name in the section the four players who are in from the first round might fancy their chances. Michael White is the best of those while Fraser Patrick, Aaron Hill and Liam Davies will be out to prove they are not making up the numbers.
There is a decent cast list in Group 5 which is headed by the Turkish Masters finalist Matt Selt who will be the man expected to come through this section of the draw. Jak Jones is the man who is expected to challenge him in the final qualifying round. The two players who come in during the second round are Nigel Bond and Thepchaiya Un-Nooh, both of whom will be needing to win a match to avoid dropping off the tour. Bond might need more than one win. There are four seasoned players entering this group in the first round. They are Lukas Kleckers, Soheil Vahedi, Andrew Pagett and Jimmy White.
Tom Ford is the man who will be expected to come out on top in Group 6 but the Welsh player Jamie Jones might have something to say about that. Michael Holt and Mark Joyce are the two players who will be looking to deny the main two seeds while Hammad Miah, Chen Zifan, Louis Heathcote and the impressive Belgian youngster Ben Mertens are the players who will be coming into the draw in the first round of the competition.
Group 7 is another one that looks like it could be a potential cracker. It is hard to believe Ding Junhui isn’t already in Sheffield for the main tournament but he’ll have to win two qualifying matches if he is going to get there. The second is seeded to be against Kurt Maflin which would be some match. Robbie Williams and Tian Pengfei would offer decent competition to the big two as well. Craig Steadman has given Ronnie O’Sullivan a run for his money in this tournament in the past but he’ll have to go through all four rounds of qualifying to make it back there. David Lilley, Lee Walker and Reanne Evans are the other players in this section.
Martin Gould is no stranger to the Crucible Theatre and if he is going to make it back there then he’ll have to win Group 8. That might mean having to deal with Ben Woollaston who recently got the better of Ronnie O’Sullivan in Gibraltar. Joe O’Connor and Ashley Hugill are the second round entrants in this section and they will each face one of Barry Pinches, Ben Hancorn, Dean Young and Lee Stephens in that second round.
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Dave Gilbert has been in and around the top 16 for a while and it wasn’t too long ago he was losing in the semi-final of this tournament. If he is going to get back there this year he’ll need to come out on top in Group 9 where he might have to deal with Anthony Hamilton in the final qualifying round. The former world champion Ken Doherty and Elliot Slessor will bypass the opening round. The four players in this section who will be competing in that are Rory McLeod, Ng On Yee, Ian Burns and Marco Fu who returns to snooker action for the first time since the pandemic started.
This is another of those tough looking groups as two of the players of the season are the leading seeds in it. Jimmy Robertson has twice made a semi-final this term but he might have to overcome the European Masters champion Fan Zhengyi in the final qualifying round to make it through. Oliver Lines and Chris Wakelin are the men who come in at the second round stage so this is a very competitive looking quarter. Throw in Peter Devlin and Jamie Wilson who enter the first round stage alongside Yorrit Hoes and Jake Crofts and you have a good group here.
The recently crowned Gibraltar Open winner Robert Milkins will be looking to finish his season at the Crucible Theatre and he’ll have to come out of Group 11 if that is to happen. He might have struck gold with the draw though because Noppon Saengkham is the other main seed and he has had a poor season. Andrew Higginson and Cao Yupeng might feel they are in a section they can come out of even though they enter in the second round stage while Peter Lines, Sanderson Lam, Chang Bingyu and Daniel Wells are all capable first round entrants.
Ryan Day has been to the Crucible on a number of occasions and he will be the main draw in Group 12. Liam Highfield will be the player seeded to face him over the best of 19 frames for a place in the main draw. You wouldn’t say either of those are unbeatable though so Mark Davis and Steven Hallworth might feel they have a chance of going deep in this event. Four competent players come into the draw in the first round in this group too. They are Jamie O’Neill, James Cahill, Yuan Sijun and Ross Muir.
Ali Carter is twice a former finalist of this great tournament and he’ll be aiming to make it into the draw again from Group 13. Sam Craigie is a competent challenger for him should the two meet in the final qualifying round as they are seeded to do. Gao Yang and another former finalist in Matthew Stevens will be out to stop that from happening. Mitchell Mann, Dylan Emery, Gerard Greene and the ladies star Rebecca Kenna will all take their chances from the opening round.
The Welsh Open champion Joe Perry probably thought he would have to go through a series of qualifying matches to make it into the main draw but the truth of it is he needs to win two. The second of those could well be against Xiao Guodong who is seeded to make it through. Ashley Carty and David Grace will be out to stop that from happening though. Jackson Page could be a first round sleeper in this group while Sean O’Sullivan, Iulian Boiko and Michael Georgiou are the others lining up to take their chance.
The former champion Graeme Dott will need to win Group 15 if he is going to get another crack at the title. If he is to do that he might need to beat Gary Wilson in the final qualifying match but Pang Junxu and Jamie Clarke are certainly good enough to put a spanner in those works. Farakh Ajaib, Zak Surety and Mark Lloyd all come in during the first round here but there might be a few eyes on Si Jiahui to see how deep he can go from the first round.
The Shootout champion Hossein Vafaei has never qualified for the World Championship but he is the highest ranked player in Group 16 so he will be expected to make it through this year. His draw doesn’t look too bad either Alexander Ursenbacher is the man seeded to meet him in the final qualifying round with Stuart Carrington and Simon Lichtenbergh coming in from the second round. Lei Peifan, Sean Maddocks, Wu Yize and Bai Langning are the other players in this group.
Jak Jones has just made his first ranking event semi-final and is a player on the up and I think he could be the one to come through Group 5. Matt Selt has made the Turkish Masters final this season but he never strikes me as a man who fully believes he is going to do something and he definitely doesn’t convince me under pressure and should the two meet in the final qualifying round the pressure will definitely be on the Englishman. In the last six weeks Jones has taken Judd Trump to a deciding frame and beaten Mark Allen, Zhao Xintong, Hossein Vafaei, Luca Brecel, Neil Robertson and Stuart Bingham so he’s in decent form and can qualify from Group 5.
Confidence is everything in this game and Robert Milkins will be full of it after his win in the Gibraltar Open last month. He has landed himself a nice draw in Group 11 where Noppon Saengkham has done nothing all season aside from a run to the last 16 of the UK Championship. It might well be that the biggest test of the Milkins credentials will come in his first match should he end up meeting Cao Yupeng but the Chinese player was in better form earlier in the year than he has been in recent times. Andrew Higginson could be a challenger as well but Milkins won in Gibraltar fair and square and played some lovely snooker, beating the likes of Mark Allen and Kyren Wilson along the way. I think he’s the one to come out of Group 11.
I wonder if there could be an upset in Group 12 because Ryan Day and Liam Highfield aren’t exactly the most reliable players in the world and Mark Davis and Steven Hallworth are capable but not exactly consistent. If there is a group where someone could come into the event in the first round and end up qualifying for the Crucible it could very well be this one where Yuan Sijun is an interesting outsider. From a talent point of view Sijun should probably be coming in much later in the competition but he’s seen the likes of Zhao Xintong and Fan Zhengyi break through this season and might finally have seen the penny drop with himself. The longer the season has gone on Sijun has been playing better snooker and that the prices looks value to shock the bigger names in this section.
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