The first silverware of 2020/21 will be contested at the BetVictor European Masters as the new snooker season continues at the Marshall Arena.
Just nine months on from Neil Robertson’s remarkable 9-0 win against Zhou Yuelong in Dornbirn – only the second-ever whitewash in a two-session final – the Australian will begin his title defence at snooker’s new home for the upcoming months in Milton Keynes.
The tournament, which can trace its roots back to John Parrott’s triumph at the European Open back in 1989, has operated under its current guise since 2016 with Judd Trump (twice), Jimmy Robertson and namesake Neil having so far taken the trophy in the current era.
Of course this year’s edition will take on a different feel, relocating to the UK and being staged without spectators due to the ongoing global pandemic, but the prize remains the same with an £80,000 cheque and equivalent ranking points to be garnered by the winner.
There is also a strong field of professionals with only Mei Xiwen, Marco Fu, Bai Langning, Andrew Pagett, Stephen Hendry and Steve Mifsud absent from the 129 WST players.
The tournament retains its format from earlier this year with early matches played over the best of nine frames, subsequently increasing to the best of 11 for the semi-finals and best of 17 for the two-session final.
The Top Quarter
The draw is headed by defending champion Neil Robertson, with the ‘Thunder’ seeded to collide with another former world champion in the form of Shaun Murphy at the last eight stage.
First up for Robertson will be a first career meeting with Thailand’s Sunny Akani, while looking further ahead he could come up against friend Joe Perry or potentially Barry Hawkins in the last 16.
As for Murphy, he faces a difficult assignment in more ways than one next week after he revealed on Twitter that he is currently battling Achilles tendinitis ahead of an opening round clash with former English Open champion Liang Wenbo.
Other big names in the section include recent Tour Championship victor Stephen Maguire, Leicester’s Tom Ford and last year’s runner-up Zhou Yuelong who could have a chance to avenge his final defeat to Robertson in this year’s quarter-finals.
Other matches to watch include rookie professional Sean Maddocks, who takes on the talented Antoni Kowalski, who at only 16-years-old has already claimed the Polish national title and back in July defeated David Lilley at the World Championship qualifiers.
There is also an intriguing clash between James Cahill and Elliot Slessor, two of the leading English players of their age group who will both be looking to take the next step in their respective careers this term.
The Second Quarter
Full marks to the second quarter of the draw with Mark Selby and Mark Allen positioned at opposite ends of the section, but who will be looking to stop that from happening?
In the case of Allen, who begins with a match against the talented Florian Nuessle from Austria, he could meet former champion Jimmy Robertson in the last 32, ahead of a clash with with Ding Junhui or former world champion Graeme Dott in the last 16.
Perhaps unusually, Mark Selby meanwhile will begin against a relatively recent two-time ranking event champion in the form of Michael White, who will be competing in his first tournament this season as an amateur top-up having fallen off the main tour over the summer. Ahead of him could be matches with the likes of Zhao Xintong or Mark Davis, followed by Stuart Bingham or Thepchaiya Un-Nooh as potential last 16 opponents. Un-Nooh will begin with a match against Liam Highfield, the pair having contested a high-quality match at the World Championship qualifiers only two months ago from which the Thai player emerged a 10-7 winner.
Elsewhere the section contains a number of newcomers to the World Snooker Tour, with Farakh Ajaib, Jamie Wilson, WSF Junior Open champion Gao Yang and Zhao Jinbo among those in action. Gao impressed on his debut at this week’s Championship League, compiling two century breaks during his maiden event as a professional.
The Third Quarter
As at the recent World Championship, world number one Judd Trump and Crucible finalist Kyren Wilson have been placed in the same quarter of this week’s draw.
For Trump, he will begin with a match against 14-year-old Iulian Boiko as the WSF Open runner-up competes in his first event as a professional, with Mark Joyce, Michael Holt and Jack Lisowski to follow if the tournament were to unfold according to seeding.
Wilson meanwhile is set to take on Welsh veteran Lee Walker in his opener, with Chris Wakelin, Kurt Maflin, and David Gilbert potentially to follow. With the likes of Anthony McGill – who starred recently in Sheffield – among those also present in the section however, this remains to be seen.
Again, there are a number of exciting prospects in this quarter, including Belgian prospect Ben Mertens and Frenchman Brian Ochoiski both competing as Q School top-up players, while Jackson Page will be hoping to build upon a solid start to his professional career with a strong start to his sophomore season.
Among the returning players in this section to keep an eye on are Lukas Kleckers and of course Jamie Jones, who faces Dominic Dale in the last 128 as he looks to climb back up the world ranking list.
The Bottom Quarter
Last but certainly not least, the fourth quarter of next week’s draw could deliver the latest instalment in one of our sport’s defining rivalries with John Higgins and reigning world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan installed at opposite ends.
Of course there is a lot of snooker to be played before that comes to pass and in fact Higgins has been handed a tricky opener against former German Masters champion Martin Gould, who notably enjoyed a strong World Championship last month following his well-documented battle against depression in recent months.
Awaiting the winner will be either Ian Burns or Jimmy White, with potentially Matt Selt and former world champion Mark Williams also ahead in the tournament’s early rounds.
For O’Sullivan, his first match as a six-time world champion will see him take on Welshman Daniel Wells, with Andy Hicks, Xiao Guodong, and Yan Bingtao potentially ahead of him should the tournament run according to seeding. Once again however, there are a number of talented players elsewhere in this second who could intervene, notably Gary Wilson, Matthew Stevens and maximum man Ryan Day, who made a flying start to the new campaign at the Championship League by compiling his second-career 147 break during the tournament’s opening morning.
Another man to watch could be Ireland’s Aaron Hill, a potential second-round opponent for O’Sullivan who has enjoyed a distinguished career at amateur level and impressed onlookers as he made his professional debut this week in Milton Keynes.
How to Watch
The tournament gets underway on Monday and will be available to watch on Eurosport – visit WST for more information on other regions.
Let us know who you think will claim the first silverware of the new season at our social media platforms linked at the top of the page!