Sunday, 3 April 2011

Crucible Countdown: 13 days to go

There's a small matter of a ranking event final to be played today in Beijing.

Judd Trump is taking on Mark Selby for the chance to be crowned China Open champion. It promises to be a cracker, but that won't throw me off of my Crucible Countdown.

With 13 days to go, OnCue gets down to the nitty gritty.

Reigning champion Neil Robertson goes into this year's World Championship bidding to become the only first-time winner to retain his crown at the Crucible.

Can he finally crack the Crucible Curse?

Graeme Dott was the last man to have a go at the huge feat.

But in 2007, he fell at the very first hurdle losing 10-7 to Ian McCulloch on the opening day in Sheffield. He's not the only one to have felt the pressure of returning to the Crucible with his first world title under his belt.

In fact, he's in great company. Terry Griffiths, Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor all suffered the same fate during the 1980s.

It's not beyond the realms of possibilities for Robertson to join that illustrious list either. He could hardly have been handed a tougher first round draw, up against today's finalist Trump.

If ever there was a sniff of a shock, this could well be it.

But Robertson being the player he is, will harbour greater hopes of coming a lot closer. Ken Doherty and Joe Johnson have so far come the closest to breaking the Crucible Curse. They both reached the final the year after lifting their first and only titles.

While Robertson has been a long way away from his best form leading into the tournament, he definitely has the attributes to carve his name in the history of snooker.

He's never been the kind of player to suffer from nerves. He tends to thrive under pressure and is blessed with a great temperament.

As far as ability goes, he's a player for the big occasion and is capable of beating anyone in the world on his day. But that doesn't mean we can ignore form.

Despite winning the World Open back in September, it's been a difficult season for the world champion. He was ranked as world number one earlier in the campaign, but has since dropped down to his current provisional work ranking of number five.

Thirteen players have scored more ranking points than him this season, including Stuart Bingham and Martin Gould.

Bar the World Open, his furthest run in a ranking event was to the quarter-finals of the UK Championship where he lost to Murphy. Elsewhere, he's struggled to make an impact. He's lost in the first round of the Shanghai and German Masters, plus couldn't get past the last 16 in the Welsh and China Opens.

There could be many different reasons for his stuttering progress. With becoming world champion, there obviously comes greater media exposure and a higher profile to contend with. There's definitely been a surge of interest in the game from Australia, which may have taken its toll too.

Then on the other side of things, it could be that he set himself such lofty standards last year, that it's been difficult to replicate his form.

Another factor is mentality of his opponents. Last season, he was all-conquering. His tail was up and he was on a warpath to succeed. Now, from being the hunter, he's the hunted. Simply put, he's a scalp these days. It's no surprise that players up their game when they take on the world champion.

Plus, he's had his fair share of tough draws this season. He hasn't lost to any duds. As well as Murphy, he's been beaten in ranking events by Anthony Hamilton, Graeme Dott and twice by Ebdon. These players are all of the same breed. They're all as tough as granite. Players who you could argue were all out to stifle Robertson.

Trump will be a different threat but this draw could suit him.

So can Robertson defeat Crucible Curse? Yes, of course he can. But winning the World Championship once is tough enough. Doing it twice, is very special. And that's why the curse exists. We could find out a lot more about Robertson over the coming month, as he bids to transfer himself from the great bracket and into the special one.

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