The 2021 World Snooker Championship gets underway at The Crucible on Saturday, with Ronnie O’Sullivan launching his title defence.
The sport’s annual show-piece returns just eight months after it last concluded, as 32 of the world’s elite stars compete for the £500,000 top prize in Sheffield.
As per tournament tradition, the defending champion will start and finish their First Round match on the opening day, with this year’s honour falling to crowd favourite O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan is bidding to equal Stephen Hendry’s record tally of seven world titles by successfully defending the crown for the second time, having done so in 2012/2013.
The Rocket returns to the sport’s spiritual home having lost in five consecutive ranking finals this season for the first time in his career.
His astonishing longevity is underlined by the fact he has featured in every World Championship since 1993, winning six of his seven finals and reaching the Semi-Finals on 12 occasions.
On only four occasions has the 45-year-old crashed out in the opening round, most recently at the hands of James Cahill in 2019, and he will be determined to avoid a repeat outcome when he faces another debutant in Mark Joyce.
Joyce has waited 15 years since turning professional to make his first Crucible appearance and now has the opportunity to put his name into the snooker history books by dethroning the reigning champion for what would be the biggest win of his career.
The West Midlands cueist defeated veteran Anthony Hamilton and Brazil’s Igor Figueiredo in the qualifying rounds to seal his spot in the main event and has experience of beating O’Sullivan in a ranking tournament, having done so at the 2017 China Open.
Meanwhile, reigning Masters Champion Yan Bingtao kicks off only his third World Championship campaign with a clash against the vastly experienced Martin Gould.
Yan produced one of the biggest stories of the season when he claimed Masters glory in January with sensational wins over Neil Robertson, Stephen Maguire, Stuart Bingham and John Higgins along the way.
The 21-year-old, however, has been out of the limelight since then, competing in only two of the seven subsequent ranking tournaments.
His sole World Championship victory to date came against Elliot Slessor last year before he was beaten by Judd Trump in a high quality Second Round contest.
Gould is making his eleventh Crucible appearance since his debut in 2009, but will be desperate to improve on a below-par record which has seen him fail to progress beyond the Second Round stage.
The 2016 German Masters champion reeled off eight frames in a row from 5-2 down to see off Bai Langning in the final qualifying round and will feel match sharp and in fine fettle heading into the main event.
One of the stand-out ties of the opening round sees 2010 World Champion Neil Robertson take on former English Open winner Liang Wenbo.
Robertson heads into the competition as one of the key contenders for glory, having picked up both the UK Championship and Tour Championship titles within the last five months.
He was almost unplayable during his run to glory at the Tour Championship, dropping just 12 frames in his three wins and making eleven centuries in the process to underline his status as one of the sport’s most prolific break-builders.
The left-hander will feel he is long overdue a strong tilt at the world title, having lost in consecutive Crucible Quarter-Finals and reaching just one Semi-Final since his maiden triumph eleven years ago.
He has been drawn to face Liang in Round One for the second successive year, having prevailed 10-5 last August thanks to a run of five consecutive frames.
Liang’s best run to date came on his debut in 2008 when he reached the Quarter-Finals and he has since managed just one win in six visits to the sport’s most iconic venue.
UK Championship runner-up to Robertson in 2015, Liang swept aside Rod Lawler and Lu Ning in qualifying and will be keen to end an otherwise underwhelming season on a high.
Two-time Crucible semi-finalist Stephen Maguire faces a tricky opening tie against a resurgent Jamie Jones.
Maguire, the 2020 Tour Championship winner, is looking to improve on a torrid recent record in this event which has seen him suffer six First Round exits in his last eight appearances.
The Scot has featured in only two ranking events so far this year, reaching the Semi-Finals of the Welsh Open, and heads to Sheffield as the number eight seed.
Jones has continued the pattern of qualifying for the World Championship every three years since reaching the Quarter-Finals on his debut in 2012.
After serving a one-year ban amid a match fixing investigation, the Welshman regained his Tour Card and has made up for lost time this season, notably reaching the Semi-Finals of the Scottish Open.
He defeated David Lilley, Michael Holt and Li Hang in the qualifying rounds and is undoubtedly the more match sharp of the two heading into the contest.
The evening session features the first part of a clash between 2019 semi-finalist David Gilbert and in-form Chris Wakelin.
Gilbert, the number 15 seed, was beaten 17-16 in a Semi-Finals epic by John Higgins two years ago and showed glimpses of the form which led him to that stage when he made the Last Four of this season’s Masters.
The Tamworth ace has admitted to struggling to adapt to the behind closed doors environment during lock-down but will be buoyed by the return of fans over the next fortnight.
He faces a player gearing up for a second stint at The Crucible, with Wakelin looking to register a first win on the biggest stage of all, having suffered an agonising 10-9 defeat to Judd Trump in 2018.
The world number 63 secured his qualification with wins over Lei Peifan, Matthew Stevens and Xiao Guodong last week and returns to The Crucible high on confidence.
The action gets underway from 10am BST, with opening sessions consisting of a maximum of nine frames before being played to a finish over the best of 19 in the second session.
World Snooker Championship 2021 Match Schedule
*Indicates final session
Saturday April 17
1 Ronnie O’Sullivan v Mark Joyce
14 Yan Bingtao v Martin Gould
4 Stephen Maguire v Jamie Jones
9 Neil Robertson v Liang Wenbo
1* Ronnie O’Sullivan v Mark Joyce
15 David Gilbert v Chris Wakelin