Rocket: It's time to entertain
Ronnie O'Sullivan has told snooker's straight men to lighten up or risk sending the Crucible crowds to sleep.
The defending champion and firm favourite to land the Dafabet World Championship title has been handed a first-round assignment against Finland's Robin Hull, the world number 122.
Qualifier Hull beat one of O'Sullivan's great nemeses, Peter Ebdon, in the final round of qualifying on Wednesday and is plunged into a showdown with snooker's most natural entertainer.
As he sets out to complete a hat-trick of consecutive titles, following wins in 2012 and 2013, O'Sullivan is urging his poker-faced title rivals to show their human side during the 17-day tournament.
He said: "Snooker has got very serious. I think some players could be a little less scared of losing.
"I think people would maybe watch it a little bit more if there was more of an effort to play attractive snooker. But people play the way they play to get a result, no matter what.
"I always believe we are in the entertainment business. It is important for people to leave a match thinking it was good, and want to come back again. The fans are buying tickets to be entertained, not to be bored."
Five-time champion O'Sullivan accepts a large burden will fall on him in Sheffield to win matches in a swashbuckling manner and keep snooker in the spotlight.
He said in a Eurosport blog: "I know there are expectations on my shoulders. People want to see me do well, but it is tough because sometimes you are up against guys who are really top players.
"You feel the weight of expectation, and if you don't do it, you feel their disappointment. It can be tough, but you know you make a lot of people happy if you can win a few matches.
"I think the longer I've gone on in my career, I'm not so hard on myself when I lose because I've won a few trophies. If I have 10 minutes left to live, I won't be thinking: 'I wished I'd won more world titles."'
O'Sullivan begins his title defence on this Saturday's opening morning, with his best-of-19-frame match against Hull concluding in the evening.
Hull, 39, gave up snooker for three years from 2008 due to a life-threatening virus but has returned, playing sporadically but well enough recently to earn his second shot at Crucible snooker. He also got through to the main draw in 2002, the year Ebdon was champion, but lost in the first round to Graeme Dott.
His country's only snooker professional, Hull responded to the draw by writing on Twitter: "I start on Saturday against R O'Sullivan. Let's go!"
Six-time world champion Steve Davis is not ruling out a surprise, suspecting the likes of little-known Hull may not be cowed by the prospect of facing O'Sullivan.
Davis said: "In some respects a player like Robin Hull has a lot less problems than some of the other players who have been bashing their heads against him and coming up with nothing.
"It seems like a lot of top players have gone into their shell recently when playing against him and so they're not playing their own game. They're certainly in awe of him or in his shadow.
"The players outside of the bracket, the likes of the qualifiers, will be in awe in some respects but they've got far less to lose than a Ding Junhui or a Neil Robertson or a Shaun Murphy or whoever.
"These lads, their mates think they've got no chance. But they know they can play so they may mentally be in a different situation.
"Of course when you're out there and you're sitting in your chair and Ronnie O'Sullivan is making light work of difficult situations, it may be another story.
"But Robin Hull is a great all- rounder and a class act. If he gets off to a good start - and a good start is always important - then who knows?"
China's Ding Junhui begins his bid for a record sixth ranking title in the same season by playing English qualifier Michael Wasley. Another English qualifier, Robbie Williams, starts against Australia's 2010 champion Neil Robertson.
Alan McManus landed the draw he wanted as the veteran Scot, who knocked out two-time world champion Mark Williams in the qualifiers, was paired with compatriot and four-time champion John Higgins.
Judd Trump starts against Leicester's Tom Ford, Mark Selby has a testing-looking opener against Welsh youngster Michael White, who reached the quarter-finals last year, and 2013 runner-up Barry Hawkins faces an opener against David Gilbert.