Ronnie O'Sullivan claimed in January that snooker is "dying" but at least one match in the World Championship, which starts today, will pull in a global television audience that will dwarf any other sporting contest over the next fortnight. Ding Junhui, the Chinese No 1, has been drawn to play his compatriot Liang Wenbo, who reached the quarter-finals last year. Their first-round match is expected to attract more than 100m viewers in China, where the game is booming like it was in Britain, 25 years ago.
Both Ding (pictured) and Liang are adopted sons of Sheffield, where the Crucible Theatre has hosted the game's showpiece event since 1977. They practice hour after hour, day after day at the World Snooker Academy there but Ding is undergoing a crisis of confidence and may have to beat his friend to stay in the elite top 16 and avoid having to qualify next year.
There has been talk that a Chinese consortium is bidding to stage the championship but a new contract with the Crucible is likely to be signed shortly. However, snooker's long-term future lies outside the United Kingdom, where its popularity has declined. BBC viewing figures are still strong but participation levels have fallen and many snooker clubs have closed, partly as a result of the smoking ban which has eroded their status as social hubs.
There has been talk of a need for change, including O'Sullivan's impassioned plea for a "sexing up" of the game at the Masters three months ago. In this spirit, a new shorter version using six reds instead of the traditional 15 is being trialled on the BBC's interactive service during the championship but few within the sport expect this to be anything other than a sideshow.
Michaela Tabb, a mother of two from Dunfermline, will make history as the first woman to referee the world final, an appointment based on merit, which should yield positive publicity for a sport with something of an image problem. Less welcome is the fact that Stephen Maguire and Jamie Burnett have drawn each other in the first round. Their match at the same stage of last December's UK Championship in Telford is being investigated by the Gambling Commission after a heavy volume of bets were placed on Maguire to win 9-3, which he duly did.
This week, the economic crime unit of Strathclyde Police were called in to investigate and will interview both players, the referee and other figures on the circuit. Maguire and Burnett vehemently deny any wrongdoing but even the suggestion of match-fixing is damaging and an air of embarrassment hangs over their next meeting.
No world champion has successfully defended the crown since Stephen Hendry did so in 1996 and O'Sullivan, who beat Ali Carter 18-8 to land a third title last year, will have to battle his own fractious temperament as much as his rivals over the next 17 days.
He starts out today against Stuart Bingham, a regular practice partner, and is drawn in the same half as authentic challengers John Higgins and Mark Selby, although he cannot meet either until the semi-finals.
Of the veteran contingent, Hendry, now 40, has been handed perhaps the toughest of all first-round draws against Mark Williams, who he beat in the final 10 years ago to win a record seventh title. Williams, twice champion, was forced to qualify this year having slipped out of the top 16 last season.
Steve Davis, at 51 the professional circuit's oldest player, is competing at the Crucible for a 29th time having first played there in 1979. His first opponent is Neil Robertson, a talented Australian who comes into the tournament nursing a shoulder injury.
Worth cueing up to watch...
*Ronnie O'Sullivan (No 1 seed, right)
Snooker's dark knight has at times been an unstoppable force but at other times the agent of his own demise. He has won just one of this season's preceding seven ranking titles and does not believe he is playing as well as he was last year. However, if he hits top form he may be unbeatable.
*Stephen Maguire (No 2)
Maguire is an attacking player aiming to emulate his fellow Scots Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and Graeme Dott by triumphing at the Crucible. He has the game to win but often allows frustration to get the better of him and will have to guard against this at a venue where anything and everything can go wrong.
*Mark Selby (No 4)
Selby, 25, has matured into a first-rate match-player, mixing an attacking approach with the ability to close the shop and employ tactical play to great effect. He has not won a title this season and was a first-round loser at the Crucible last year but impressed in reaching the final in 2007.
*Ali Carter (No 7)
Carter made a maximum en route to the final last year and has since enjoyed his best season, winning his first ranking title, the Welsh Open, and reaching three other semi-finals. Fiercely determined, he now has the silverware to back up the self-confidence and comes to Sheffield as the current campaign's form player.
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