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Snooker: Ding hoping to break Crucible duck

The snooker World Championship qualifiers get underway at the English Institute of Sport on Monday morning with 128 players all hoping to make the main draw.

Those entrants must be whittled down to just 16 and the qualifiers, which will take place in Sheffield over a nine-day period, promise to deliver plenty of thrills and spills.

The world's top 16 receive automatic qualification into the main draw courtesy of their lofty ranking, but for everyone else they must work hard for their rewards.

The qualifying system is designed to favour those who are at the top-end of the rankings, so while those at the bottom have to come through four matches - three best-of-seven contests and a best-of-19 - those that ranked 17th to 48th in the world must win just twice.

Ding an outsider for World Championship glory

There are plenty of familiar faces in qualifying action with the likes of Ding Junhui, Stephen Maguire, Ricky Walden, Ali Carter, David Gilbert, Joe Perry, Graeme Dott and Ryan Day all battling it out to book their spot at the Sheffield showpiece.

Only six years ago Ding was scrapping it out with Mark Selby for the World Championship title - he lost 18-14 - but after a few seasons of struggle he finds himself outside the world's top 16.

The Chinese sensation has not claimed silverware since scooping the UK Championship three years ago, but in recent weeks has shown signs of his old sparkle.

Ding made the semi-finals of the Turkish Masters and followed that up with a run to the quarter-finals in Gibraltar, where he bumped into eventual runner-up Kyren Wilson.

Those efforts suggest Ding is peaking for a shot at the title in Sheffield and he should have few problems qualifying for the main event.

The 35-year-old is likely to face compatriot Tian Pengfei in his opening qualifier before a best-of-19 clash with Kurt Maflin or Robbie Williams.

On recent evidence, Ding should breeze past those challengers, hence the 4/9 on offer to book his ticket to the Crucible.

If Ding, who is one of the game's greatest ever break-builders, makes the main draw he is the qualifier the seeds will want to avoid, and he is a 25/1 chance to go one better than in 2016 and lift the trophy.

Carter should confirm Crucible return

Carter has twice finished runner-up to Ronnie O'Sullivan at the World Championships and although now 42 years of age, the Colchester cueman has not given up on making it third time lucky.

Carter is not the force of old and now finds himself 24th in the world rankings. However, the Captain is still capable of beating anyone on his day and he can take advantage of a generous draw.

He plays either Dylan Emery, Mitchell Mann or Gao Yang in his first round of qualifying and is likely to be tackled by Mathew Stevens or Sam Craigie in his best-of-19 contest.

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Carter has shown he is in decent form with back-to-back quarter-final appearances at the Welsh Open and the Turkish Masters in March and should successfully navigate his way to the Crucible.

The Essex man is 4/6 to qualify for the main draw and is 80/1 to go on and be crowned champion.

Gilbert may have to lock horns with Fu

While Ding and Carter have been dealt a decent draw, world number 20 Gilbert has a few tricky obstacles in his way.

The Angry Farmer impressed on his way to the semi-finals of the World Championship in 2019 and would be a high-profile absentee were he to miss this year's renewal.

However, the presence of Marco Fu in his section of qualifying should create some cause for concern for Gilbert followers.

Fu was ranked as high as fifth in the world in 2017 but had to undergo eye surgery and due to not playing in any events has seen his ranking steadily drop.

But the Hong Kong ace is a two-time World Championship semi-finalist and reports suggest he has been practising well.

Fu's low ranking means he has to win four matches, while Gilbert has to win just two, but if they clash in a best-of-19 it promises to be an absolute epic.

Gilbert is 8/11 to make his Crucible return and 50/1 to lift the title, whereas Fu is a 9/2 chance to qualify for the main draw and 200/1 to claim silverware.

Improving Vafaei can put Iran on the snooker map

Hossein Vafaei became the first Iranian player to win a snooker ranking title when winning the Shoot Out in January and he may break more ground by making his World Championship debut.

Vafaei has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years and as well as winning the Shoot Out has also made the semi-final of the Welsh Open this season.

The Prince of Persia is 8/11 to qualify for the main draw and it is easy to see why given his possible route to the Crucible.

The 27-year-old may face either Wu Yize or Bai Langning in his opening qualifier, while his toughest best-of-19 clash would be against Stuart Carrington or Alexander Ursenbacher.

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