The curtain is raised on the 2022 World Snooker Championship in Sheffield on Saturday as Mark Selby puts his title on the line at The Crucible.
The waiting is finally over as the sport’s blue riband event returns in front of a capacity crowd, with 32 of the world’s top cueists competing for snooker’s ultimate prize.
The world’s top 16 ranked players are joined in the line-up by a formidable field of 16 qualifiers as they compete over 17 days of intense action.
As has become tournament tradition, the defending champion will start and finish their First Round match on the opening day of the competition, with that honour falling to Selby once again.
Selby, who defeated Shaun Murphy 18-15 in last year’s final, is bidding to become only the fifth player to win five or more world titles.
The Leicester ace launches the defence of his title with a clash against Welsh qualifier Jamie Jones – a player returning for his fifth World Championship appearance following an impressive qualifying campaign.
Selby, who is yet to pick up a ranking title since his triumph here 12 months ago, has won six of his seven previous meetings with Jones, most notably the Semi-Finals of the 2020 Scottish Open.
Jones, one of six Welshmen in this year’s World Championship, reached the Quarter-Finals on his Crucible debut ten years ago and is no stranger to an upset, having twice beaten Murphy in this event, as well as Stephen Maguire.
Meanwhile, Ronnie O’Sullivan begins his latest quest for a record-equalling seventh world title with a mouth-watering tie against 2019 semi-finalist David Gilbert.
The Rocket has claimed the World Grand Prix title this season and is back on top of the world rankings, having also reached the final of the European Masters in addition to a further two ranking Semi-Finals.
An ever-present at The Crucible since 1993, the 46-year-old is chasing down Stephen Hendry’s record tally of world titles but has been susceptible to an early exit in the sport’s show-piece in recent years, suffering Second Round defeats in 2018 and 2021 and a First Round loss in 2019 before going on to claim the title the following year.
O’Sullivan boasts a perfect head-to-head record against Gilbert with seven consecutive victories, including a First Round meeting here back in 2016 which ended 10-7.
Gilbert, the world number 19, thrashed Rory McLeod 6-1 and Anthony Hamilton 10-3 in last week’s qualifiers to seal his eighth World Championship appearance.
Championship League winner at the beginning of the season, Gilbert has also reached a further four ranking event Quarter-Finals this term and will have fond memories of his landmark run to the Last Four in Sheffield three years ago.
Zhao Xintong, seeded for the first time at The Crucible, looks to cap off a landmark season of success by challenging for a maiden world title, and starts out against returning Welshman Jamie Clarke.
Zhao shot to prominence by securing his first Triple Crown title at the UK Championship last December and quickly doubled his ranking title tally by winning the German Masters the following month.
Making only his second World Championship appearance, the 25-year-old is vying to become the first-ever Asian World Snooker Champion.
Clarke, who defeated Mark Allen on his debut in 2020 before being denied in a deciding frame epic by Anthony McGill, came through the qualifiers in dramatic fashion as he sunk a treble on the black to seal a 10-8 win over 2006 champion Graeme Dott before falling to the floor in celebration.
Barry Hawkins, the 2013 runner-up, begins his 17th consecutive Crucible campaign with an encounter against 20-year-old debutant Jackson Page.
Hawkins has come up short in two finals this season – The Masters and the Players Championship – both at the hands of a rampant Neil Robertson.
The Hawk’s impressive Crucible record has seen him reach a final plus a further four Semi-Finals and one Quarter-Final in his last nine appearances.
Page, meanwhile, is the youngest player in this year’s World Championship, having pulled off four fantastic victories in the qualifying rounds to seal a dream debut on the sport’s most iconic stage.
The former Under-18 World Champion, who has been mentored by Mark Williams, defeated Sean O’Sullivan, Ashley Carty, Joe Perry and David Grace to seal his progress as the lowest ranked player (90th) in the field.
Another of the stand-out ties from the opening round sees 2005 World Champion Shaun Murphy take on former UK Champion Stephen Maguire.
The decorated duo have met on 23 previous occasions dating back more than 20 years but this will be the first time they have locked horns at The Crucible.
Murphy, the number ten seed, famously claimed glory as a qualifier 17 years ago and has since made a further three world finals, finishing runner-up on each occasion – including 12 months ago.
Semi-finalist in the recent Turkish Masters, Murphy has failed to make inroads in many of the major events this season, suffering First Round exits at both the UK Championship and Masters.
Maguire is also facing a crucial Crucible campaign having tumbled to 40th in the world rankings after his title winning prize money from the 2020 Tour Championship recently came off his order of merit tally.
The Scotsman, twice a World Championship semi-finalist, breezed through the qualifiers to maintain his record of consecutive appearances since his debut back in 2004.
Day One of the World Snooker Championship gets under way from 10am, with first sessions consisting of a maximum of nine frames, before being played to a finish over the best of 19.
World Snooker Championship 2022 Day One Schedule
*Indicates final session
Saturday April 16
1 Mark Selby v Jamie Jones
13 Zhao Xintong v Jamie Clarke
3 Barry Hawkins v Jackson Page
16 Ronnie O’Sullivan v David Gilbert
1* Mark Selby v Jamie Jones
14 Shaun Murphy v Stephen Maguire