The 2012 Masters gets under way on Sunday with arguably the greatest ever field in the history of the illustrious tournament.
The invitational event is such that, in any given year, a significant portion of the Top 16 in the world rankings that contest the annual competition could emerge victorious come the final Sunday.
However, there are usually a handful of players that can be disregarded at the outset with this year being a notable exception.
There can be genuine arguments made for each cueist that will line-up for battle at Alexandra Palace next week – some of which will be looked at in greater detail later in the article.
Before that, there has been an interesting debate circling the social media websites surrounding The Masters and the UK Championship.
Without question, they are both the second and third biggest titles to win behind the Worlds itself but which one is bigger? Which is more important? Which carries the most prestige?
Opinions appear to be divided on all fronts and a significant case can be made for either.
The UK Championship is probably noted as the second of the three majors in the sport and has the added incentive of carrying a hefty amount of ranking points – the second highest tally of any event in the calendar.
On the other hand, while The Masters is only a money-tournament a player can only compete in it by gaining enough ranking points in the first place to become a member of the elite Top 16.
Similarly, the latter pits the talents of the game’s greatest at that particular time against each other and therefore, it can argued, is the most prestigious to win for the professional player himself.
Many argued that the UKs lost a lot of its importance when the format was altered for the 2011 edition but, in truth, the tournament in York was one of the most exciting in years and produced a thrilling final conclusion.
It is a difficult question to answer and one that will continue to be debated but one thing is for certain – if you win either, you are obviously a good player!
Back to this year’s Masters and it marks the first time since 1979 that the venue will not be at Wembley but it is fair to say that there is a general buzz surrounding the prospects of a fresh arena at the Alexandra Palace – home to the PDC World Darts Championship – and the fact the event remained in London was imperative.
Some great names that have lifted the trophy over the years will not be playing – Stephen Hendry for the first time since 1988, Steve Davis, Jimmy White and Alan McManus.
Yet, as noted, the field is a strong as ever, containing six champions and a host of others that could join the party – let’s have a look at those in competition.
Mark Selby – World Number 1
Leicester’s Selby is a two-time winner having been crowned with the title in 2008 and 2010, sandwiching a runners-up spot in 2009. Selby’s performance in ranking events was questioned until he won the Shanghai Masters this season and rose to the top of the ladder in the rankings but his performances in this event excel.
Rd 1 Opponent: Stephen Lee
Mark Williams – World Number 2
Another two-time champion, Williams hasn’t emerged victorious at The Masters in almost a decade when he became the first player to hold all four of the BBC titles at the same time in 2003. The Welshman had an odd 2011, starting brilliantly by winning the German Masters then suffering three catastrophic defeats in the World semis and Australian and Shanghai finals. Still, when playing fluently, he’s one of the most dangerous threats.
Rd1 Opponent: Stephen Maguire
John Higgins – World Number 3
For whatever reason, Higgins has never been a huge lover of this tournament. Again, he has won it on two occasions but has been dumped out early on a hatful of occasions. You would never be stupid enough to write the Scot off but this is one event where you can be more confident betting against him than on him. In addition, he has been unusually inconsistent during the 2011/12 campaign so far.
Rd1 Opponent: Matthew Stevens
Neil Robertson – World Number 4
The Australian is many people’s tip, here included, to be the danger man throughout 2012 and where better place to start than in London. When Robertson gets to a final he knows how to win – a record of eight out of eight success rate speaks for itself – but the 29 year-old has failed to even reach the last four in this event. That could well change next week.
Rd1 Opponent: Mark Allen
Judd Trump – World Number 5
What can be said about this breath of fresh air to the sport? The China Open and UK champion, Trump is beginning to feel the glory of winning on a regular basis. That said, he is hugely inexperienced in this tournament (one appearance) and that added pressure, coupled with the electric atmosphere that is expected at Ally Pally, could prove too much for an overall conquest this year.
Rd1 Opponent: Stuart Bingham
Shaun Murphy – World Number 6
Murphy is another player that has never really got going at The Masters for whatever reason. In seven previous visits he has never been beyond the last 8. The Englishman is already a World and UK champion and adding the final major to his repertoire would be a defining moment in his career. He has been consistent if not spectacular in recent times so is due a big week.
Rd1 Opponent: Martin Gould
Graeme Dott – World Number 7
Dott has been steadily climbing back up the rankings this season – capitalising on his poor form a couple of years ago. The Scotsman is a tenacious, dogged fighter who has gained a lot of respect in the snooker world in the second half of his professional career. Perhaps not tipped by many to do the business but he has proved numerous times at The Crucible he can handle the pressure of crucial moments.
Rd1 Opponent: Ali Carter
Stephen Maguire – World Number 8
Another Scotsman, Maguire had failed to live up to his nickname of ‘On Fire’ for a pretty lengthy spell up until recently. The Glaswegian enjoyed a morale-boosting triumph over John Higgins in York and then lifted his first trophy in almost four years in last week’s PTC 12. One of the most under-achieving players in the game, at only 30 Maguire has plenty of time to set the record straight.
Rd1 Opponent: Mark Williams
Ding Junhui – World Number 9
China’s Ding Junhui is the defending champion having emerged victorious in the first all-Asian final this time last year against Marco Fu. Since then and despite a run to the World Championship semi-finals, Ding has been anonymous in many respects which has been reflected in his drop down the rankings. Such is the competitive spirit near the top, though, it is difficult to stay consistent so it will be interesting to see if this event can rekindle his inspiration. Unfortunately, his first round opponent doesn’t come much tougher…
Rd1 Opponent: Ronnie O’Sullivan
Mark Allen – World Number 10
Bar Trump and, as always, O’Sullivan, Allen is probably the man creating the most media attention of late. He somewhat controversially aired his frank opinions on the current regime at the UK Championship before going on to narrowly be defeated in his first final at The Barbican. A feisty competitor, The Masters is suited to his style of play and the Northern Irishman will be a player most want to avoid.
Rd1 Opponent: Neil Robertson
Ali Carter – World Number 11
Harsh as this may sound, out of all the players that will be involved Ali Carter is probably the least likely to come out on top. ‘The Captain’ is certainly talented enough to be triumphant but his form, and his mentality for that matter, has wilted dramatically in the last year. It would be a surprise to see the 2008 World Championship finalist at the business end of proceedings.
Rd1 Opponent: Graeme Dott
Martin Gould – World Number 12
Despite all of Trump’s heroics, if you take the last two years Martin Gould is the most improved player on the circuit in that period – and surprisingly so because not many saw it coming. Competing in his debut Masters, Gould could well be a dark horse in front of his home crowd in England’s capital city. Furthermore, he is bound to build on that support with his trademark attacking, exciting brand of snooker.
Rd1 Opponent – Shaun Murphy
Matthew Stevens – World Number 13
Champion an amazing twelve years ago – yes, twelve! – when he defeated Dublin’s Ken Doherty in a memorable final for all the wrong reasons (Ken’s missed black on the 147), Stevens is finally returning to the kind of form he produced early in his career following a few lean years. Stevens has always enjoyed the longer-framed matches and will undoubtedly be a major threat if he can hold his nerve when matches become tight. John Higgins may seem an unfortunate opening bout but that may not be the case.
Rd1 Opponent: John Higgins
Stuart Bingham – World Number 14
Another vastly improved player, Bingham is finally in the Top 16 after what appeared a lifetime on the fringes – and deservedly so. ‘Ballrun’ came from 8-5 down to pinch his first ranking event at the Australian Open last summer and has continued to be pretty solid since. The 35 year-old would have wished for an easier last 16 tie but he’ll be elated to be amongst the action all the same.
Rd1 Opponent: Judd Trump
Stephen Lee – World Number 15
I have no idea why but I just get the feeling that Stephen Lee is going to have a big tournament sooner rather than later. The Englishman was extremely consistent in the PTC series without being overly spectacular which means he is evidently cueing quite well. A finalist in 2008 when he tearfully admitted to wanting to lift the trophy in honour of his late friend Paul Hunter, Lee can either produce the silkiest cue action in the game or crash and burn. Which Lee will turn up this time?
Rd1 Opponent: Mark Selby
Ronnie O’Sullivan – World Number 16
Well, Ronnie’s in it and if he’s in it, he can certainly win it. The four-time champion of The Masters is one of the greatest players to have ever graced the game, an enigma and a genius. Which ‘Rocket’ will lift-off in London is anyone’s guess but there have been fleeting signs during this campaign that a major title is just around the corner. His talent is still there and his mental strength is stronger but his confidence remains quite frail and the potential route to the final of Ding, Trump and Williams/Robertson is daunting. But perhaps it is better that way.
Rd1 Opponent: Ding Junhui
To view the complete 2012 draw click here.