It has been almost seven weeks since the last piece of ranking event silverware was handed over to first-time winner Ryan Day at the Riga Masters, but next Wednesday marks the return of ranking event snooker as the venue stages of the Evergrande China Championship get underway in Guangzhou.
Won by John Higgins last November as a 16-player invitational competition, this year the event has become a full 128 player ranking event, with the first qualifying round completed from 3-6 June at Preston’s Guild Hall. While top prize has been reduced from £200,000 to £150,000, the overall prize fund has been increased to £700,000, on a par with the money available at the World Open and International Championship events.
The importance of the event is reflected by a field that even this early in the season in August, sees just three top 32 players (Kyren Wilson, Ricky Walden and Dominic Dale) absent having failed to qualify.
A number of first round matches have been held over to the venue stages, including world champion Mark Selby, defending champion Higgins and Chinese duo Ding Junhui and Liang Wenbo, while Andrew Higginson, Daniel Wells and Tian Pengfei face wild cards in their openers. As at the Riga Masters, these wild cards are now included within the main 128 player draw, rather than as part of a separate wild card round as in previous seasons.
Most unusually, the tournament will begin and end not on a Sunday, but mid-week following consultation with the tournament promoter. With the final to be played on Tuesday in Guangzhou, there could potentially be a tight turnaround for players involved in the Paul Hunter Classic, set to get underway that Friday.
Matches will be played over the best of nine frames with intervals up to and including the quarter-finals, subsequently increasing to the best of 11 for the semi-finals and best of 19 for the two-session final. There will be eight tables used for the first two rounds, decreasing to four for the last 16, two for the quarter-finals and one for the semi-finals and final.
The tournament will be the first of three tournaments (Paul Hunter Classic and Indian Open), to be completed ahead of the second seedings revision of the 2017/18 campaign, with the completed list to be used to determine seedings for the 2017 International Championship.
The Top Quarter
And so on to the draw, which will be headed by reigning world champion Mark Selby, rather than defending champion John Higgins who finds himself seeded second in the opposite half.
Having missed out on the Riga Masters following a toe injury, the season starts here for the world number one and it will be interesting to see how quickly he is able to get back up to speed against players who have more snooker under their belts so far this term. First up for him will be wild card Luo Honghao, who has past wins to his name against Eden Sharav and Chris Wakelin in Asian Tour events and was most recently seen at the China Open back in March.
Further Asian opposition would await Selby in the next two rounds, with Thailand’s Noppon Saengkham to be followed by either Zhou Yuelong or Chen Zifan in the last 32. In the same section, Martin Gould is seeded to meet Anthony McGill in the last 32 if they can come through their opening round matches. Looking back at their head to head, the pair met four times in 2013 but not come across each other since, McGill having won their only best of nine encounter 5-2 back at that year’s China Open.
The other half of the quarter meanwhile contains no fewer than four former world champions and six ranking event winners, including 2015 World Championship finalists Stuart Bingham and Shaun Murphy. Neither have an easy start to the tournament however, with Bingham set to face 17-year-old prodigy and now top 64 player Yan Bingtao, while Murphy will come up against 47-year-old Ken Doherty, arguably the player of the season so far having been relegated at the end of last season.
Other match-ups to keep an eye out for include a match between Stephen Maguire and Rory McLeod in a repeat of their Crucible last 16 clash back in April, while veteran duo Peter Ebdon and Anthony Hamilton meet 25 years on from their first professional encounter at the 1992 Strachan Challenge.
The Second Quarter
Top seed in the second quarter of the draw is home hero Ding Junhui, who like Selby above has had his last 128 match against countryman Niu Zhuang held over to the venue stages. Awaiting the winner will be Alfie Burden in the last 64, no stranger to difficult second round draws in recent years, while either Elliot Slessor or Alan McManus would be next up in the last 32.
The other half of this mini-section is relatively open with 13th seeded Kyren Wilson having fallen in qualifying to Michael Georgiou, meaning that either the Cypriot, Mark King, Fergal O’Brien or Kurt Maflin is guaranteed to feature in the last 16. Of note, Northern Ireland Open champion King did in fact defeat Kurt Maflin during the recent European Masters qualifiers in Preston, while Georgiou recorded a 5-0 win against O’Brien in their World Open qualifiers just days ago.
Elsewhere, former World Championship finalists Barry Hawkins and Ali Carter are seeded to meet in the last 16, but interestingly it is Carter who has had the better of their rivalry down the years, winning six of their seven matches outside of the Championship League.
Among those looking to spoil the party are Ben Woollaston and Mark Davis who meet in what on the face of it looks to be a difficult to call last 64 match, although upon closer inspection it is Woollaston who has dominated their recently encounters.
David Grace meanwhile will face Ian Preece in what will be their first professional meeting, Preece having whitewashed Ricky Walden to qualify.
The Third Quarter
Moving to the third half of the draw and immediately what jumps off the screen is a potential last 16 meeting between Judd Trump and Ronnie O’Sullivan, a result of O’Sullivan having dropped to 14th in the seeding list for this tournament.
Of course nothing is guaranteed however and with Trump having suffered a 5-0 whitewash to Sam Craigie last week, he will be looking to get back on track with a win against either Daniel Wells or Ma Chunmao in his last 64 match. If he can win that, he would face either 2006 world champion Graeme Dott or Robert Milkins, ahead of that potential O’Sullivan encounter.
Speaking of O’Sullivan, he will begin his tournament against Sam Baird, the latter having won their only previous professional meeting at a PTC event back in 2011, while either David Gilbert or Stuart Carrington would await the winner in the last 32.
In the other half of the quarter we find Marco Fu and Liang Wenbo, both ranking event winners last season and looking to kickstart 2017/18 in Guangzhou. For Fu, a tricky opener against Iran’s Hossein Vafaei Ayouri in what will be their first professional meeting, while either Jimmy Robertson or Luca Brecel, the latter who Fu memorably came back from the brink to defeat back at the Crucible in April, would provide the opposition in the last 32.
For Liang, he will have an extra match to navigate as he faces Ian Burns in a match held over from Preston, with Allan Taylor already awaiting the winner in the second round.
Completing the section are Mike Dunn and Joe Perry, Dunn hoping to record his first ever professional win against the former Players Championship winner.
The Bottom Quarter
Last but certainly not least comes the bottom section of the draw, from which the likes of John Higgins, Neil Robertson, Mark Allen and Mark Williams will be among those looking to emerge.
For the defending champion Higgins comes a held over match against Lyu Haotian, before a potential meeting against Chris Wakelin in the last 64 and then a contest with either Matt Selt or Tom Ford in the following round.
Whoever can come through that section is guaranteed to face either Welsh or Chinese opposition. Top ranked Welsh duo Mark Williams and Riga champion Ryan Day can both be found here on a collision course for the last 32, or perhaps neither will make it and Cao Yupeng will take on either Tian Pengfei or Fan Zhenyi.
Further up the draw Neil Robertson will be looking to continue the form that he showed in winning the invitational Hong Kong Masters last month with victory against Li Hang in his opening match. The last time the pair met in China, Robertson notched four century breaks at the 2013 International Championship on his way to his landmark ‘century of centuries’ achievement by the end of the season. The winner will face either Michael White or Xiao Guodong who have both enjoyed improved fortunes of late and perhaps most notably met in the final of the 2015 Shoot Out, won by White.
Finally, new father Mark Allen is set to face Matthew Stevens in the last 64, the Northern Irishman looking for a similar outcome to his 10-4 victory against Stevens in their last meeting back in the final of the 2013 World Open. Either way, the winner will be rewarded with a clash against either Michael Holt or Thepchaiya Un-Nooh.
How to watch
The tournament gets underway on Wednesday and will be available to watch both on Eurosport TV and Eurosport Player.
Let me know who you think will take the title in Guangzhou via Twitter @prosnookerblog or @wpbsaofficial