Televised snooker returns this Sunday with the start of the 2018 Dafabet Masters from the Alexandra Palace in London. As ever, 16 of the world’s top players will battle it out to claim the biggest invitational title in the sport, with Ronnie O’Sullivan looking to capture the title for a record eighth time – and third in a row.
The oldest invitational event remaining on the professional calendar, the Masters is unsurprisingly steeped in history, with some of its most memorable moments chronicled by World Snooker in a recent article. Known as one of snooker’s ‘triple crown’ events in modern times, the format remains the same as the world’s top 16 descend upon the ‘Ally Pally’, home to the tournament since 2012, with just one table taking centre stage in front of a packed house.
A break from the flat 128 format that we now see regularly in ranking competition, the Masters of course remains a non-ranking event but that does nothing to lessen its prestige. Some might say that it enhances it, as there are no ranking distractions or seeding cut-offs for future cut-offs to consider, with all attention on the £200,000 top prize and the chance to lift the Paul Hunter Trophy, named after the late three-time former champion last year.
As was the case 12 months ago, each of the 16 players in the draw is a ranking event champion and it remains as difficult as ever to pick a winner. Of course Ronnie O’Sullivan will enter as a strong favourite with the bookmakers and with good reason. Already the seven-time champion has won the event more than any other player, including the previous two years and he also comes into this year’s event having already won three ranking events so far this season.
Nevertheless, with the likes of runaway world number one Mark Selby, four-time world champion John Higgins and fellow former Masters Ding Junhui and Shaun Murphy also in the draw, nothing can be taken for granted. One man who would normally be listed among those names is of course 2012 champion Neil Robertson, but the Australian will be confined to the Eurosport studio this week having fallen outside of the top 16 at the crucial post-UK Championship seeding cut-off.
The Top Quarter
Top of the shop is of course Ronnie O’Sullivan, who will be looking to become the first player to win three consecutive Masters titles since Stephen Hendry won an incredible five on the spin between 1989-1993.
At 42 years of age, fans could be forgiven for thinking that O’Sullivan might be due to slow down but with three ranking titles including a sixth UK crown under his belt only last month, the Rocket shows no signs of doing so.
Hoping to apply the brakes to his impressive season will be Marco Fu, who was a semi-finalist last year at the event, losing 6-4 to O’Sullivan following what had been a close match up to 4-4. So far this season however, Fu has struggled to find his best form, last 16 runs at the Scottish Open and Shanghai Masters representing his best performances in ranking events.
His head to head record with O’Sullivan too makes for worrying reading, despite having often gotten the better of the defending champion during the first half of his career. In fact it has been one-way traffic for O’Sullivan since Fu’s last victory at the 2009 Welsh Open, with wins at the Alexandra Palace in 2017 and 2015 among 11 straight successes in all competitions. The pair get their latest meeting underway on Tuesday afternoon.
Awaiting the winner will be either Mark Allen or Luca Brecel, who will meet in what on paper looks like it will be an entertaining clash on Sunday evening.
Although he has not been able to cap his performances with silverware, Allen has enjoyed a consistent season to date, reaching the final of the International Championship, as well as the semi-finals of the World Open and the last eight of the European Masters in Belgium. The Antrim man also has a good early record at the Masters, losing his opening match just twice from nine previous appearances and twice reaching the semi-finals.
Standing in his way this year will be Luca Brecel, one of two debutants having vaulted up the rankings following his maiden ranking success at the China Championship earlier this season. The pair have met on just three previous occasions and just once over a match of this distance, Allen running out at 6-0 winner on that occasion back at the 2014 UK Championship.
Although the history books favour Allen, Brecel is very much a different proposition these days to their previous meeting at the 2015 Shanghai Masters and we can expect a close encounter between the pair on the opening evening.
The Second Quarter
Next up, an all-Scottish affair between two-time champion John Higgins and our second debutant for 2018, Anthony McGill.
One of snooker’s great players, it remains a surprising quirk that Higgins has a relatively inconsistent record at the Masters, having lost his opening match on 13 of the 23 previous occasions that he has played in the tournament. This included last year, when he came out on the wrong side of a deciding frame with Mark Allen.
In happier reading for the ‘Wizard of Wishaw’ however, he takes a strong recent head to head record against a man who idolised him as a young player into their meeting on Wednesday evening, having defeated him in the final of this season’s Indian Open and opening round match at the Champion of Champion by an aggregate score of 9-1.
That final run in India for McGill was his best run of what has quietly been an impressive season for the 26-year-old in which he has also made the semi-finals of the English Open and a further three ranking event quarter-finals. Having made an impressive Crucible debut back in 2015, the talented Scot has shown that he has the temperament for the big stage and it will be interesting to see whether he deliver again on such an occasion.
Sharing the quarter are Ding Junhui and Ryan Day, no strangers to each other having met on seven previous occasions in ranking competition, 17 in all.
For Ding Junhui despite capturing a 13th ranking event title at September’s World Open, it has otherwise so far been a season to forget at the Chinese number one has otherwise failed to progress beyond the last 32 of a ranking event all season, notably letting slip a 5-1 lead against Leo Fernandez at the recent UK Championship before Christmas.
Hoping to capitalise on any lack of confidence will be the in-form Ryan Day, making his first appearance at the Masters since 2010 and his first at this venue. His previous record against Ding is strong too, with victories against him at the World and UK Championship and having joined the ranking event winner’s circle with his victory at the Riga Masters last summer, it would be no great surprise to see him enjoy another strong week at the Masters.
The Third Quarter
Turning to the bottom half of the draw we find Judd Trump and Liang Wenbo, two players who know each other’s game well and perhaps most memorably met in the final of the 2016 English Open where Liang came out on top a 9-6 winner to claim his maiden ranking title.
Despite a disappointing 12 months at the majors as he lost in the first round of the Masters and World Championship, as well at the last 32 of the UK Championship, 2017 was otherwise a strong year for Trump as he reached five ranking event finals, winning two.
For a player who excels on the big occasions as much as Trump, his record at the Masters is perhaps surprising with two semi-finals from seven appearances a modest return for a player of his talent, something that he will be hoping to put right over the next week.
Liang Wenbo meanwhile will be making his third consecutive appearance at the tournament, still searching for a first win following defeats to Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins the last two years. So far his season has been relatively unspectacular, last 16 appearances at the International Championship and Shanghai Masters representing his best performances, which is reflected by his drop to 19th in the world rankings since he qualified for this event following the UK Championship.
As for their head to head record, there is little to choose with Liang 3-2 up at full-ranking events, but Trump having won their most recent clash this season at the International Championship in China.
The winner will face either Shaun Murphy or Ali Carter, who meet in an all-English tussle on Wednesday afternoon.
For Murphy, by his own admission the opening half of the 2017/18 season has been the best of his career, victory at the Champion of Champions and three further ranking event finals representing a strong return from the past six months. A former winner of this event back in 2015 when he completed a career triple crown, Murphy surely comes into the tournament as one of the men to beat.
Interestingly however, his record against Carter is not the best, Ali having won seven of their previous ten meetings in full ranking events, leading Murphy to describe him as something of a ‘bogey player’ for him. In fact the pair met only this week in the final of the latest group of the Championship League where Carter came out on top a 3-1 winner.
Carter’s form has been indifferent since his quarter-final defeat to Martin Gould at the International Championship, but while it is always dangerous to read too much into the relative sprint matches of the Championship League, his performances at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena can have done his confidence no harm at all and this promises to be another close match.
The Bottom Quarter
By a surprising quirk of fate, four of the players in the bottom quarter of the draw are in fact the same as in 2017, with Kyren Wilson the exception to that rule as he prepares to take on Barry Hawkins.
For seventh seed Hawkins, he will be hoping to forget last year’s tournament as despite reaching the semi-finals at the Alexandra Palace, he ultimately ended up losing out 6-5 having at one stage led 5-2 to miss out on reaching back-to-back Masters finals.
With off-table issues proving a distraction in 2017, the Hawk will be hoping for a fresh start in 2018 and with plenty of match practice under his belt already during the past two weeks at the Championship League and a good recent record at this venue, it would be no surprise to see him return to form this week.
Opponent Wilson meanwhile makes his second appearance at the event having lost out 6-3 to Ding Junhui a year ago. With two ranking event finals under his belt this season, it has been a solid season for the World Games gold medallist and he will be hoping to spring a surprise or two in London.
Interestingly, the pair have never met in a match longer than the best of seven frames and only once before at a full-ranking event, Hawkins running out a 4-2 winner at last season’s World Grand Prix.
Finally, we find Mark Selby and Mark Williams, who with five Masters titles between them will face-off for the second consecutive year at the Alexandra Palace.
Interestingly compared to a year ago however, it is perhaps Williams who comes into the event in the stronger form, having captured his 19th ranking event title in November at the Northern Ireland Open in Belfast and reached a further four quarter-finals, as well as the semi-finals of the Riga Masters. Selby meanwhile did lift the title at the International Championship in Daqing, defeating Williams 6-4 along the way, but a shock defeat to Scott Donaldson at the UK Championship before Christmas was a result that few expected for the defending champion.
The pair met four times in 2017 overall, Selby coming out on top 6-5 at the Masters and 10-8 in the final of the China Open in addition to victory in Daqing, but Williams won 5-3 in their most recent clash at the last 16 of the Shanghai Masters.
Once again, another close encounter beckons in what will be the opening match of the tournament on Sunday afternoon.
The action gets underway on Sunday 14 January – let us know who you think will win via our social media platforms at the top of the page.