The World Snooker tour returns to China next week for the tenth staging of the popular Shanghai Masters, with Kyren Wilson looking to defend the title that heralded his breakthrough 12 months ago.
Today I take my customary look at the event and pick out some of the themes to follow during what is the biggest event of the season to date.
The Shanghai Masters was first held back in 2007, when Dominic Dale memorably came back from 6-2 down, winning eight frames in a row to defeat fellow Welshman Ryan Day and claim his second ranking event title. Nine years on and the event has so far seen nine different winners, from nine different stagings, from established names such as John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan, to those claiming their first titles such as Ricky Walden and Kyren Wilson.
With the Australian Goldfields Open no longer on the calendar, the Shanghai Masters is now also significant for being the sole surviving event to operate under the ‘old’ tiered system, with the world’s top 16 all guaranteed to be at the venue and the remaining 112 professionals having had to qualify, with 16 making it to Shanghai. As has been the case since its inception, the tournament will also feature eight wildcards, this year including world u-21 champion Xu Si.
For the first time this season we have a full complement of top 16 players, 2009 champion Ronnie O’Sullivan notably making his season debut, while 11 of the 16 players ranked 17-32 were able to successfully come through qualifying in Barnsley just a couple of weeks ago. A strong field then and with match-ups such as Shaun Murphy v Stephen Maguire and Ronnie O’Sullivan v Liang Wenbo potentially in store, we will have highly competitive matches from the start.
Although we have already had four ranking events so far this season, for some players this event marks the start of the real meat of the season, with a near non-stop schedule between now and Christmas. While some players may be in and out with their practice during the summer months, by now most should be sharp and ready to go which can only be good for the tournament.
In terms of rankings, the event marks the latest seedings revision of the seeding, with the updated world rankings a week on Monday set to determine the seedings for the English Open event. As usual, notable matches will be referenced below, however for in-depth analysis please see my preview from earlier in the week.
The Top Quarter
Let’s get this out of the way, as cliché as it might be to describe this section as the ‘quarter of death’, that is exactly what I am going to do as we find a string of players who have impressed during the past 12 months.
At the very top of the draw we find defending champion and recent Indian Open finalist Kyren Wilson, who will begin his defence against either Riga Masters finalist Michael Holt, or world u-21 champion Xu Si. Many players who win their first ranking event struggle to back up their initial success, at least immediately, but during the 12 months since his maiden victory Wilson has gone on to establish himself as a force to be reckoned with at the very top of the game. Now ranked up inside the top 16 and with barely any prize money to defend for the rest of this season, the 24-year-old will be hoping to continue his rise up the ranking list in Shanghai.
Holt too though has been much improved in recent months and (wildcard permitting), is set to face Wilson in Shanghai for the third time in four years, the Hitman having won their first meeting on his way to a first career semi-final, before Wilson gained his revenge last year en route to the title.
It will not get any easier for whoever can come through that match, with the winner set to face either Ronnie O’Sullivan or Liang Wenbo, who (wildcard permitting), will meet in a repeat of the 2009 final. As far as O’Sullivan is concerned, it is difficult to know what to expect from the five-times world champion given his lack of competitive action of late, although he has of course had some match practice against Judd Trump during their recent exhibition series. Liang meanwhile has not set the world alight so far this season, but did win their last encounter 6-4 back at the 2013 International Championship, his only ever win against O’Sullivan.
Elsewhere in this section, recently crowned six red world champion Ding Junhui meets Scott Donaldson, who is the lowest ranked qualifier remaining in the event. A winner here three years ago, Ding will no doubt be among the players to watch again this week in Shanghai and has won his previous two meetings with Donaldson without the loss of a frame.
Awaiting the winner in the last 16 meanwhile could be either Mark Allen or Anthony McGill, Allen looking to consolidate his position inside the top eight of the world rankings, while McGill will be looking to break into the top 16, needing to reach at least the final to stand a chance of doing so.
The Second Quarter
Turning to the second section and we find Judd Trump, who this week spoke of his new approach to target the sport’s biggest titles and will be looking to go one better than in 2012 when he lost 10-9 in the final to Scoland’s John Higgins.
He begins with a match against Ben Woollaston, who has qualified for the venue stages of this event for the first time, but has lost his three previous encounters against the Ace in the Pack.
Awaiting the winner could be former champion Ricky Walden, who it should be be forgotten arguably came through one of the toughest draws ever to win a ranking event back in 2008 when the qualifier saw off Stephen Hendry, Neil Robertson, Steve Davis, Mark Selby and finally Ronnie O’Sullivan to claim victory.
He opens his campaign against Michael White, who defeated Jimmy Robertson 5-4 on a re-spotted black to qualify and give his confidence a boost after a tough run in recent months.
Elsewhere in this section, Barry Hawkins will be looking to get his season up and running against Robert Milkins, whose best result of the season so far was a last 16 run at the Indian Open. The pair have met just once in the last decade at a ranking event, Hawkins winning 4-3 at the Players Championship earlier this year.
The winner will face either Shaun Murphy or (wildcard permitting), Stephen Maguire as the pair renew their rivalry at an unusually early stage of a ranking event, as a consequence of Maguire’s recent drop in ranking. That said, with Murphy having recently become a father for the first time, it will be interesting to see how sharp the former world champion is in Shanghai.
The Third Quarter
With three formers winners, the third section is far from short on Shanghai pedigree and 2014 champion Stuart Bingham will be looking to defend as much of the prize money soon set to drop from his ranking as possible. He begins with a match against Jamie Jones, who he has not met before in a ranking event but has lost to on two previous occasions at the Shoot Out.
Awaiting the winner will be either Marco Fu or David Gilbert, whose previous four meetings have all come in matches of at least the best of 11 frames. Of those, Fu has won three, including their most recent clash at last season’s UK Championship.
In the other half of this section we find 2010 winner Ali Carter, who is now safely back inside the top 16 with few points to defend this season, following his victory at the World Open earlier in the year. With his place at the Masters still not certain however, he will be hoping to cement his position with a strong run this week in Shanghai and could face Kurt Maflin first up, the Norwegian interestingly having won both their previous meetings, both also in China.
Also present are John Higgins and Matt Selt, the 2012 champion one of the most notable players yet to secure a place at this season’s Champion of Champions and looking to avenge defeat to Selt back at the 2011 Australian Goldfields Open.
The Bottom Quarter
Finally we reach the bottom half of the draw and find Neil Robertson and Mark Selby on course to meet at the quarter-final stage. Not though if the other players present here have anything to say about it of course, with Ryan Day or a wildcard set to face Robertson first up. If Robertson and Day are to meet, there is recent form to go on following their meeting at the World Open in July, Robertson winning 5-1.
Another left-hander could await the winner, former Shanghai runner-up Mark Williams set to get his campaign underway against China’s Mei Xiwen, who qualfied so impressively with four wins in Barnsley.
Elsewhere, Joe Perry looks to go one better than his final run in Yushan and will begin against Stuart Carrington, while world number one Mark Selby faces either Martin Gould or a wildcard opponent as he looks to become the first player to win in Shanghai on more than one occasion.
How to watch
The Shanghai Masters will be covered extensively by Eurosport next week, with the UK schedule available here.
Let me know who you think will come out on top in Shanghai on Twitter @prosnookerblog