Snooker: O'Sullivan to turn up Crucible heat: The World Championship starts today in Sheffield where young talent will want to upset the game's elite. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
WHO COULD blame Dennis Taylor for looking at the draw for the Embassy World Snooker Championship and getting the sneaking suspicion that someone up there does not like him?

The 1985 champion could have been paired with a has- been hoping for a last hurrah at The Crucible or even a teenager ranked outside the top 50 still learning the game.

In a sense he has, as his opponent today is tender in years. But if Ronnie O'Sullivan is wet behind the ears it is only because of the quantities of winner's champagne that have been spraying in his direction.

At 18, he probably still needs time at snooker's finishing school before he becomes the definitive product, but whatever he lacks he hides it well. He owes his non-seeded status in Sheffield to his rank of 57 at the end of last season, which makes him a floater in the draw with the all charm of a primed Second World War mine.

It is one that Taylor, the 15th seed, will have to make safe today. O'Sullivan lost to the Irishman earlier this season but in the meantime he has taken the United Kingdom and British titles while winning pounds 164,000 and gaining a provisional place in the game's hierarchy of ninth. He has two more years after this one to wrest Stephen Hendry's claim as the youngest winner of the title but seems intent on doing so in indecent haste.

After taking the UK title by beating Hendry 10-6 in the final, his appetite for practice diminished and it required a 5-0 rout in the Thailand Open by James Wattana for him to gorge at the table again. Last week he won the British Open in Plymouth, defeating Hendry and Wattana on the way and his draw at The Crucible, if he can get past his scheduled meeting with John Parrott in the next round, has been a kind one.

The provisional rankings have Steve Davies, Hendry and Wattana as the top three and they are in the opposite half. Parrott, meanhwile, has been declining and Jimmy White, a loser in the last four finals, has done no better this season than reach three semi-finals. O'Sullivan could also meet the Whirlwind in the last four at The Crucible.

'He is the best of the new breed,' Hendry said of O'Sullivan, 'the most stylish, skilful and the heaviest scorer. He also has the best attitude. He doesn't fear anyone.'

If O'Sullivan does win as a non-seed, and bookmakers have him listed at 6-1, it will be in keeping with a strangely democratic season. The monopoly Hendry had on the game has diappeared with his declining form and eight players have won this season's 11 tournaments. These have included Peter Ebdon, who probably does not possess the cue-ball control to withstand 17 days of World Championship scrutiny, and Alan McManus, who probably does.

The Scot reached the semi-finals last year before losing to Hendry but more pertinent was his win in the Benson and Hedges Masters at Wembley that ended a sequence of six losing final appearances in major tournaments.

'I was saying 'please give me one more chance' and I got it,' he said after beating Hendry 9-8 in the final. 'It was the point of no return.' His one-way ticket would look even more valid if he could show the same tenacity to finish off opponents that he displays when trailing them. He too is in O'Sullivan's side of the draw and probably is a more likely opponent in the semi-finals than White.

Equally likely to be hovering menacingly in the latter stages is Davis who has been quarter-finalist in all eight ranking tournaments this season and has won the Welsh Open and Irish Masters this season. So happy was the six-time champion with his form that he said he would be scaling down his work this week.

He probably has not but the nature of his toil has changed away from hours of splendid isolation and now centres on practice matches, with O'Sullivan as a consistent partner.

They could be meeting for real in 16 days' time.

ORDER OF PLAY: Saturday: 10.30am and 7.30pm: S Hendry (Sco) v S Gill (Eng); D Taylor (N Irl) v R O'Sullivan (Eng). 3pm: D Roe (Eng) v D Harold (Eng); J White (Eng) v B Snaddon (Sco). Sunday: 10.30am: D Roe (Eng) v D Harold (Eng); J Parrott (Eng) v D Henry (Sco). 3pm: J White (Eng) v B Snaddon (Sco); N Bond (Eng) v C Thorburn (Can). 7.30pm: S James (Eng) v S Dodd (Eng); J Parrott (Eng) v D Henry (Sco).

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