And so following the festive break, the action resumes this weekend with the start of the 2017 Dafabet Masters as defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan heads a field of the world’s top 16 players at the Alexandra Palace, London.
The second of snooker’s prestigious ‘triple crown’ events, the Masters has created countless unforgettable moments since its inception in 1975, from the magical 147 by Kirk Stevens back in 1984, to Stephen Hendry’s famous comeback against Mike Hallett. Or from Mark Williams’ re-spot victory against Hendry in 1998, to the final ball victory by John Higgins against Ronnie O’Sullivan over a decade ago now, the large capacity, one-table set-up has seen it all over the years.
But for a certain generation of snooker fans, perhaps the player most synonymous with the competition is the late Paul Hunter, who won the tournament three times in four years between 2001-2004, each time from behind and each time 10-9. As announced earlier this year during the World Championship, this year his contribution to the history of the event will be recognised in a special way, as the unique Waterford Crystal trophy, will be re-named the Paul Hunter trophy for the first time.
On paper, this year sees arguably the strongest ever field head to the ‘Ally Pally’ as for the first time each of the 16 competitors is a ranking event winner. Will six-time champion Ronnie O’Sullivan so something that he has never been able to do before and successfully defend his title? Or perhaps Mark Selby will claim a fourth Masters crown and add another big money success to the growing list of titles that he has claimed during the past 12 months?
To the draw…
The Top Quarter
Heading the draw is of course defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, who a year ago equalled Stephen Hendry’s record of six Masters titles with a dominant 10-1 victory against Barry Hawkins in the final.
The season so far has seen the Rocket reach three major finals, most recently at the UK Championship in York where he ran into an inspired performance from world number one Mark Selby at the Barbican Centre. Since he began his season at the Shanghai Masters in September, his game has appeared to become progressively sharper from tournament to tournament and both his relatively low ranking and lack of silverware stretching back to last season’s Welsh Open, mask a consistently high level of performance in recent events.
He begins his latest Masters campaign with a clash against China’s Liang Wenbo, who of course has lifted a trophy already this season at the English Open in Manchester and is up to a career-high 11th in the world rankings. Following his Masters début a year ago against John Higgins, his task is not any easier in 2017 as he faces another of snooker’s ‘class of 92’.
The head to head record between the two does not make pretty reading for Liang fans, who has won just one of their six meetings in major competitions and also surrendered a three frame lead against O’Sullivan to lose 5-4 in their last match in Shanghai last year, but their matches have generally been close and he will be hoping to tear up the form book in London.
Awaiting the winner will be either Neil Robertson or Ali Carter, a mouth-watering clash between two players who have played out a number of memorable matches down the years. Masters champion in 2012, Neil Robertson is the higher seeded of the two, but following an difficult few months on tour since what was a strong start to the season as he lifted the Riga Masters title last summer, could be seen as vulnerable heading into the tournament.
While he has shown that he is too strong a player not to turn his season around at some point and made an impressive six century breaks last week at the Championship League, Carter will be looking to take advantage of any lack of confidence and record his first win against the Australian since the 2013 German Masters. Only four players have earned more money so far this season at ranking events than Carter and after missing out on the tournament in 2016, he will be extra keen to make an impact upon his return.
The Second Quarter
Moving down the draw and we find Judd Trump and Marco Fu, both now ranking event winners this season following Marco’s victory at the Scottish Open before Christmas.
Turning firstly to Judd, it is perhaps surprising that he is yet to reach a Masters final and last year saw perhaps his best chance yet slip away as following his epic quarter-final victory against Neil Robertson, he then fell at the semi-finals stage to Barry Hawkins.
Armed with a new cue though, he has enjoyed a consistent season to date, winning the European Masters in Romania and reaching at least the quarter-finals of a further five tournaments before Christmas. His recent record against Fu is strong, having defeated the world number eight at the China Open last year and before that at the Crucible in 2015.
That said, the Fu that we saw in Glasgow before Christmas was arguably the best that we have seen during his 19-year professional career, indeed he looked like a strong contender for the title from the early rounds and if he can reproduce that form in London he will be no pushover for Trump.
For the winner there could be a re-match from Glasgow against Scotland’s John Higgins, with Mark Allen the man standing in the way of the two-time Masters champion. Despite his defeat to Fu at his home event last time out, Higgins has enjoyed another lucrative season to date with victories at the China Championship and Champion of Champions events and will be looking to improve upon what is a surprisingly inconsistent record at snooker’s premier invitational tournament. In fact, the Scot has lost exactly half of the 22 first round matches that he has played at the Masters, although only one of the five that he has played at its current home, the Alexandra Palace.
As for Allen, the Northern Irishman is set to make his ninth appearance in the competition and will be aiming to improve on his semi-final runs of 2011 and 2015. Interestingly, Allen has won both of their previous meetings in this competition, most recently at the same stage of the event a couple of yeara ago, but more recently has lost out to the world number three at the China Championship and UK Championship events this season.
The Third Quarter
Leading the third section of the draw is world number two Stuart Bingham, who begins his eighth Masters with a clash against Joe Perry.
A year ago Bingham was finally able to progress beyond the last 16 stage of the event with a 6-4 victory against Ding Junhui, before he added the scalp of John Higgins to reach the last four where he would lose out to Ronnie O’Sullivan. So far his season has had its ups and downs, but he has already earned more prize money than during the whole of the 2015/16 campaign and has shown signs that he is getting closer to lifting that elusive first trophy since the 2015 World Championship at the Crucible.
Like Bingham, Perry has also progressed beyond the last 16 stage just once at the Masters, coincidentally also by virtue of a victory against Ding Junhui back in 2015. A finalist at the World Open last summer, Perry has struggled to find his best form in the months that have followed and will be hoping that a new year can bring with it new fortune in 2017.
The winner will face either Ding Junhui or this year’s sole debutant Kyren Wilson, who despite an early exit at the UK Championship in November was just about able to hang on to the 16th and final qualifying spot.
For Ding the Masters is a tournament that has seen highs and lows down the years, from becoming the first Asian winner of the event back in 2011, to the pain of his 2007 final defeat to Ronnie O’Sullivan and more recently, five consecutive first round exits meaning that he is yet to win a match at the tournament’s current home. Generally speaking, his form this season has so far been pretty good and he will be hoping to break his duck at the Alexandra Palace against the man who won their last encounter on his way to his maiden title at the 2015 Shanghai Masters.
The season for Wilson meanwhile has so far seen him reach the final of the Indian Open and a further semi-final in Northern Ireland, but has also seen him lose ground at big money tournaments such as the UK and International Championship events, losing early in York and not competing in Daqing.
If Wilson can make it six straight defeats for Ding at the venue, he will become the first debutant to win a match at the Masters since Jamie Cope reached the semi-finals on his only appearance back in 2011.
The Bottom Quarter
At the foot of the draw we find 2015 champion Shaun Murphy and last season’s runner-up Barry Hawkins, who will meet for the first time since their World Championship semi-final at the Crucible back in 2015.
For 2015 champion Murphy the season has so far not been without its challenges, but semi-final runs at the recent UK and China Championship events are a reminder of why he will be among the favourites to take home the title for a second time this year.
Hawkins meanwhile has had a solid season to date, most notably finishing as runner-up to Mark King at the Northern Ireland Open event in November, as well as reaching the last four of the English Open earlier in the campaign. The definition of an player who flies under the radar, few will expect the Hawk to repeat his final run of a year ago, but equally in light of his performances at the Crucible and other tournaments in recent years, it should not be a surprise if he does.
Last but certainly not least we find three-time Masters champion and world number one Mark Selby, who opens his campaign with a clash against two-time champion Mark Williams.
Having won three ranking event titles already this season, including the two most valuable financially, Mark Selby is without doubt the man to beat on tour at the moment and shows no signs of letting up in his pursuit of adding further titles to his CV. To date, he has fallen at the first hurdle just twice from nine appearances in the competition, most recently a couple of years ago against friend and eventual champion Shaun Murphy.
Williams on the other hand prepares to make his 19th appearance at the Masters and will be looking to win his first match since 2013 when he defeated Matthew Stevens, before running into that year’s champion Selby.With quarter-final runs at the UK Championship and Northern Ireland Open events in November, recent form has been pretty good and the overall head to head between the two is very evenly matched, meaning that there could be yet another tight match in store during what could be the most competitive first round ever at the Alexandra Palace.
The action gets underway on Sunday 15 January – let us know who you think will win via our social media platforms at the top of the page.