As the 2011 World Snooker Championships kicks off, John Higgins is ranked World number 1. But really, it's all about Ronnie, isn't it?
The world of snooker has a gripping history of match-fixing, hell-raising, wrestling with inner demons, grudges and mood swings. It's like a sort of baize-based soap opera, with balls. So who are the players to watch this year? (Because I'm a girl, I've included star signs. Forgive me...)
Neil Robertson: 29, an Aquarius who likes Metallica.
Theme tune: Down Under by Men at Work
As last year's winner, the "Thunder from Down Under" faces plausible contender Judd Trump for an intriguing first-round clash. Since winning the World Open in Glasgow last September, Robertson has failed to go beyond the second round of the last three ranking events. Was his previous good form a fluke? Is he just jittery? Or is he a bit rubbish?
Mark Williams: 36, an Aries who sometimes plays 5-a-side.
Theme tune: Club Foot by Kasabian
He might have the face of a disgruntled Victorian industrialist but he's a Welsh dragon who could SPIT FIRE. This season his form's been surprisingly good - a different story from last year when talk of him hanging up his cue was almost on everyone's lips. If he carries on winning, he might even smile. Off the table, Williams likes fast cars. FACT.
John Higgins: 36, a Taurus who's ranked as the World Number ONE.
Theme tune: Needles and Pins by The Searchers
He faced disgrace in May last year when he was embroiled in a match-fixing / bribery debacle and was lambasted for bringing the game into disrepute. He returned to the tables in November and he knows he's got a lot to prove. Incidentally, Higgins and his wife Denise appeared on ITV's Mr. and Mrs. and reached the final after answering 9 questions correctly out of 9 to win £30,000. Wow.
Mark Selby: 28, a Gemini whose favourite colour is BLUE.
Theme tune: Underdog by Kasabian
Known as "The Jester from Leicester" (probably the most ironic nickname on the snooker circuit as I've never seen him crack a joke) Selby is ranked 3rd in the world and is a much-feared player. According to his website, "the future certainly is bright for one of snooker's young stars." It's not one of the Jester's funniest lines but it could be TRUE.
Judd Trump: 22, a Virgo who beat Albert Einstein's IQ score when he was just 13!
Theme tune: at the time of publishing, Trump's theme tune remains a tantalising mystery.
The Bristolian youngster might have a silly surname but he's on the up, people. Last year he failed to qualify; this year he is ranked 14 IN THE WORLD. That's some development. He devastated Mark Selby in Beijing, is a stunning break builder, a helluva potter and he could be a great outside bet. (Currently he's on about 33/1).
Mark Allen: 25, a Pisces who won the World Amateur Championship in 2004.
Theme tune: Ever So Shy by General Fiasco
The following year he turned professional and took only THREE SEASONS to reach the elite top 16. Entering the 2010/2011 season, this fearless Irish mega-potter is ranked 10. He doesn't play golf and apparently doesn't have ANY favourite things:
Ding Jun Hui: 24, an Aries who's China's most successful player.
Theme tune: Poker Face by Lady Gaga.
A prolific breakbuilder when on form, it took him only five seasons to compile a century of centuries, a record he shares with Ronnie O'Sullivan. He started playing when he was 9, his parents sold their house to help his career and he's a Liverpool FC fan.
Andrew Pagett, 29, a Taurus who's nickname is the rather lame 'Welsh Wizard.' (He's from Caerphilly so why didn't he come up with a cheese-related nickname, for God's sake??)
Theme tune: not sure he's got a theme tune. Something by Charlotte Church perhaps? Bryn Terfel? Max Boyce??
Pagett's practice partner is Mark Williams so some would say he's got a head start. Two years ago he lost his place on the pro tour so he's just grateful to be part of the World Champ experience.
Ronnie is considered by many fans, critics and fellow professionals as the most naturally talented player in the history of the game. He plays with his left hand, he plays with his right hand; hell, he'd play with his wanger if they'd let him.
It's also worth mentioning Stephen Lee, who, apart from looking increasingly like a human cue ball played this AMAZING shot. Could he, as 18th world ranker, pull something special out of his bag / pocket?
But wait, I hear you say! Where's the Main Man???
Reader, I saved the best till last.
Ronnie O'Sullivan: 36, a Sagittarius who surely, SURELY every sane person perceives as the GOD of the baize.
Theme tune: Stellify by Ian Brown.
Ronnie "The Rocket" has been World Champion on three occasions (2001, 2004 and 2008), and is second on the all-time prize-money list, with career earnings of over £6 million, behind only Stephen Hendry. O'Sullivan has been the world's no. 1 player on five occasions, has won a total of 22 ranking titles, and is second, again behind Hendry, on the list of competitive century breaks. O'Sullivan has compiled 10 maximum breaks in professional competition, a record which he shares with Hendry. (BTW, he LOATHES Hendry. Allegedly). Ronnie is considered by many fans, critics and fellow professionals, (including Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry (through gritted teeth), as the most naturally talented player in the history of the game. He plays with his left hand, he plays with his right hand; hell, he'd play with his wanger if they'd let him. He made the fastest maximum 147 break on record at the 1997 World Snooker Championship in just 5 minutes 20 seconds. He also owned a saucy lingerie shop.
He's no stranger to controversy, is honest about his depression, flirts with Buddhism and is, I reckon, the most entertaining player to watch, like, evurr. Whether he's being erratic, electrifying, rubbish, spell-binding or heart-breakingly self-critical you've got to love Ronnie. He flicked a finger at a snooker ball because it misbehaved and for this, I love him.
On 7th April the snooker world reeled when he revealed he'd be withdrawing from this year's tournament. But only a day later notified the governing body that he'd changed his mind. He's working with psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters (who was part of the successful Great Britain cycling squad at 2008 Olympics) to help him "enjoy snooker again." His form this season hasn't been great (that's about the worst I'll say about him) but with Ronnie you just never know. Will he throw in his cue for good and bow out forever? Will he astonish and amaze? I for one CAN'T WAIT to find out.
The snooker ranking system has had an overhaul. Things, people, will never be the same again and only time will tell if this system is fairer, or from the punter's point of view, if it can accurately predict the winner.
There's now a rolling ranking system which started with the 2010/2011 season. A player's rank is calculated from points accumulated over the preceding two years and operates by replacing points from two seasons ago with points from the corresponding tournaments in the current season. (Are you still with me?).
For the technically minded: when the points from the 2010/2011 UK Championship are added, the points from the 2008/2009 UK Championship will be dropped. Also, there are three cut off points for setting the seedings during the season: in the 2010/2011 season the first cut off point is after the second European Players Tour Championship event, setting the top 16 seeds for the UK Championships and Masters; the second cut off is after the UK Championships, setting the seeds for the German Masters and Welsh Open; a final cut off point occurs after the Welsh event setting the seeds for the rest of the season.
In practice, this means that if a player has an awful season he could drop like a stone. Equally, new players could rise meteorically.
Whatever happens this year, the World Snooker Championships are going to be full of drama, passion and Hazel Irvine's astonishingly flicky-flicky hair.
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