The 2013 Masters gets under way on Sunday as the 16 best ranked players in the world do battle at the Alexandra Palace in London.
First staged in 1975, the Masters is now the second longest running professional tournament on the annual calendar – behind only the World Championship itself – and is widely regarded as the most prestigious invitational event in the game.
Indeed, some believe that gaining success in the competition, open to just those who are ranked in the elite Top 16, is even more difficult that reigning supreme at the Crucible but I think those are still in a relative minority.
That said, the Masters is in the “Big Three” of snooker majors alongside the Worlds and the recently staged UK Championship, won by Mark Selby.
In years to come the International Championship and perhaps even the China Open will be considered as majors in their own right but, along these shores, there is something extra special about emerging victorious in BBC’s signature Triple Crown.
Yesterday it was announced that the trio will be broadcast on the BBC until at least 2017, which is good news for snooker in Britain and Ireland in general.
The Masters has a rich and esteemed history with almost all of the sport’s greatest names managing to get their names on the trophy(ies).
Stephen Hendry famously earned his first invitation in 1989 before going on an incredible five-year winning streak that included the unbelievable comeback triumph over Mike Hallett in 1991, a seemingly unstoppable run that eventually came to a shock conclusion in 1994 with a dramatic 9-8 defeat to fellow Scotsman Alan McManus.
Steve Davis, Jimmy White, Alex Higgins, Cliff Thorburn, Ray Reardon, John Spencer, Dennis Taylor, Doug Mountjoy and Perrie Mans all already had their names etched in the annals with Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins, Mark Williams, Matthew Stevens, Mark Selby, Ding Junhui and last year’s champion Neil Robertson adding to a glittering list of star players and performers becoming masters of the baize.
But the tournament will arguably always be best remembered for the heroics of the late Paul Hunter, who famously won the event three times over a four-year period before tragically losing his life to cancer in 2006.
At the time at the turn of the millennium, Hunter was known as the ‘Beckham of the Baize’ with his blonde locks, good looks and endless charisma helping to bring snooker into a reputed second golden era that never actually came to pass – that is until now, perhaps.
The 2012 event, the first at the Ally Pally, was touted as the greatest ever field of players to be assembled for a knock-out showdown.
Some will argue that this year’s line-up is slightly weakened by the absence of Ronnie O’Sullivan (choice) and Stephen Lee (banned) but it does not mean that it is any less competitive.
The tie of the round is undoubtedly the clash of the last two champions, Neil Robertson and Ding Junhui.
Ding has been typically inconsistent this season but will have been buoyed by his recent Scottish Open win while Aussie’s Robbo has openly stated that he has his sights firmly set on regaining the world no.1 status by the end of the season.
As an invitational event, the Masters doesn’t carry any ranking points but his performance against all the top players next week could be an indication as to how likely he is to achieve his personal objective.
The draw is littered with interesting ties elsewhere. Two-time champion John Higgins takes on Ali Carter, who himself has excelled in the more high-profile outings in the last year.
Arguably the most improved player on the circuit since the Barry Hearn era is Stuart Bingham and he faces a tough challenge in another twice winner, Mark Selby.
Stephen Maguire and Graeme Dott will enjoy a battle of the Scots while there’s a similar Celtic theme in Wales’ clash between Mark Williams and Matthew Stevens.
Many people’s favourite for the title, Judd Trump, takes on the ever consistent Barry Hawkins while dark horse Mark Allen potentially (and I do say this with caution) has the easiest draw against 6-reds world champion Mark Davis.
Finally, last year’s runner-up Shaun Murphy, finalist in York only last month too, has the test of Ricky Walden in the last 16.
Murphy will be hoping to become only the eighth player to capture all three Triple Crown events having already added his name to the World and UK trophies.
Choosing a winner in this is like asking someone to pick the first horse across the line in the Grand National but one would have to think that the outcome of Ding vs Robertson will have a sizable impact in term’s of the victor’s confidence while Selby, Higgins and Trump are all obvious contenders for semi-final spots.
The competition is so fierce, however, that any prediction should not be taken too seriously.
With that in mind, I’m going to go for a rather shocking punt and advise Mark Williams, who is potentially due a turnaround in fortunes following a rather mediocre, at best, 18 months.
Either way, it should be a good’n.
Last 16 Draw
1) Neil Robertson vs Ding Junhui
2) Mark Allen vs Mark Davis
3) Shaun Murphy vs Ricky Walden
4) John Higgins vs Ali Carter
5) Mark Selby vs Stuart Bingham
6) Mark Williams vs Matthew Stevens
7) Stephen Maguire vs Graeme Dott
8) Judd Trump vs Barry Hawkins