World Championship: Neil Robertson is looking for ‘cherry on top’ with second Crucible win

Neil Robertson may be coming off the back of his ‘best ever season’ but he is bracing himself for a tough opening test against Crucible deutant Ashley Hugill at the Betfred World Championship.

The 27-year-old Yorkshireman battled through three rounds of qualifiers simply to reach the Crucible, and was paired against the 2010 former world champion in his opening round match.

Hugill has served his apprenticeship in the sport – moving from York to Sheffield and training at the city’s Victoria’s Academy – but he will get his reward when he steps onto the biggest stage of his career at the famous Crucible theatre.

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He will face an opponent who has won the Tour Championship, Masters, English Open and Players Championship in a season Robertson himself describes as an “unbelievable year”.

Defending champion Mark Selby (front) with the Betfred World Championship trophy with Mark Allen, Anthony McGill, Luca Brecel, Shaun Murphy, Neil Robertson, Barry Hawkins, Stuart Bingham, Yan Bingtao, Mark Williams, John Higgins, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Kyren Wilson and Zhao Xinong during the media day at the Crucible. Photo: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire.

Not that the 40-year-old Australian will be taking Hugill lightly when the pair play on Monday.

“I have got a debutant, but he is a very experienced player,” Robertson told The Yorkshire Post. “Sometimes you can play a debutant, maybe early 20s who hasn’t really experienced too much before.

“But Ashley has been around a long time. He is one of these players who seems to fall off the Tour, then rebounding back on. To be able to do that you have got to have a very resilient mind.

“For him to come through the qualifying process shows that he is playing very well. I expect him to have a bit of local support.

(Back to front, left to right) Mark Allen, Anthony McGill, Luca Brecel, Shaun Murphy, Neil Robertson, Barry Hawkins, Stuart Bingham, Yan Bingtao, Mark Williams, John Higgins, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Mark Selby, Kyren Wilson and Zhao Xinong during the media day at the Crucible. Photo: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire.

“I am really looking forward to getting out there. It’s been a brilliant season for me.

“Having a successful championship would be like putting the cherry on the top of the cake.

“I have had an unbelievable year, and whatever happens here it will certainly go down as my best ever season.

“Four major titles, the English Open – beating John Higgins 9-8 in the final – winning the Masters, Players Championship, Tour Championship, they are the biggest tournaments in the world.”

Robertson knows how Hugill will feel on Monday, he has vivid memories of his own debut in 2005, against Crucible king Stephen Hendry.

“I remember on my debut I wanted to draw – because it was my first time and I was confident it wouldn’t be my last time – Ronnie O’Sullivan (John) Higgins or (Stephen) Hendry,” he recalled.

“I ended up drawing Hendry in the first round, he was world No 1 then. I remember how quickly I stopped enjoying that experience when he got off to a flier against me. He got a century in his first frame, typical Stephen Hendry stuff.

“I remember struggling in the first session, I was 9-3 down, and then allowed myself to enjoy it a bit more and got back to 9-7, before eventually losing the match.

“But I took an amazing amount of positives from the match. I remember Terry Griffiths stopping me back stage – he was coaching Stephen and a few others – and saying ‘that was fantastic, don’t worry you are going to achieve something special here one day’. Eventually I did, so didn’t do too bad.

“I remember sitting next to Stephen Hendry, he had a really cool pair of shoes and wondering ‘wow, they must be so expensive’.

“He didn’t even look at me once, or talk to me. You are sat so close together, but he was like a cold killer, which is kind of the attitude you have to have.

“Sometimes you see players talking with each other, maybe if they are friends on the Tour, others choose to not to talk at all. Me, I go with the flow, I don’t have any game plan of ignoring anyone.”

Defending champion Mark Selby cues off this morning against Welsh qualifier Jamie Jones, while Ronnie O’Sullivan faces David Gilbert this afternoon.

Selby collected his fourth world title last year by beating Shaun Murphy in the final.

World No 1 O’Sullivan is looking to equal Hendry’s record of seven world titles against Gilbert, a semi-finalist at the Crucible three years ago, and it will be a welcome return of full crowds following the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s been a difficult time for people over the last couple of years,” said Robertson.

“It’s great we have no restrictions this year, full crowds, and you feel that as a player.

“You look at other things that are going on in the world, and my biggest problem will be to make sure I don’t trip down the stairs when I come from behind the curtains. When you look at it that way, it makes it very easy to go out there and enjoy it.”

First-round draw: Zhao Xintong v Jamie Clarke, Judd Trump v Hossein Vafaei, Neil Robertson v Ashley Hugill, Yan Bingtao v Chris Wakelin, John Higgins v Thepchaiya Un-Nooh, Kyren Wilson v Ding Junhui, Barry Hawkins v Jackson Page, Mark Selby v Jamie Jones, Anthony McGill v Liam Highfield, Shaun Murphy v Stephen Maguire, Mark Williams v Michael White, Mark Allen v Scott Donaldson, Ronnie O’Sullivan v David Gilbert, Stuart Bingham v Lyu Haotian, Jack Lisowski v Matthew Stevens, Luca Brecel v Noppon Saengkham.