The International Championship returns on Sunday for a second outing in Chengdu with one of snooker’s most lucrative prize funds up for grabs.
Last year’s inaugural event was a great success, thanks in large part to the longer format that we are now so unaccustomed to.
Like the UK Championship, each round is played under a best of eleven frames guise but unlike in York both the semi-finals and the final are increased.
This ensured that audiences again had a tournament outside the World Championship whereby a match that isn’t a final was played across two sessions.
Longer matches add to the tension and drama of any competition.
There are increased opportunities for turnarounds and storylines to develop whereas in the best of seven PTC-like set-ups outcomes can be written in the blink of an eye.
Moreover, the elongated format predominantly ensures that the best players will get to the business end of the tournament – as was the case last year.
In the final, Judd Trump overcame Neil Robertson 10-8 in an enthralling encounter that captured the imagination of a tournament that has eyes, in the long-term, on being regarded as the sport’s fourth major.
This is fair and just. With all that China has done for snooker in the last decade, both with its influx of competing players and the tournaments to play in, it deserves to be rewarded with a recognised, important stamp on the calendar.
That’s not to say that the China Open and Shanghai Masters are not major events – they are – but there is already a sense of prestige with regard the International.
The format and the winner’s cheque of 125,000 pounds support this cause.
Likewise, so does the fact that this year 64 players are flying to China to take part under the newer flat system initiated this season.
All the big players are in attendance, including the reigning champion Trump and world no.1 Robertson.
One player neither of them had to contend with last year was Ronnie O’Sullivan, who was in the middle of his self-imposed hiatus from the snooker scene.
The ‘Rocket’, of course, returned in April to claim his fifth World Championship crown and has been a sporadic presence on the circuit during this campaign.
The lure of a golden pot was too much for the 37 year-old to resist entering again this time around.
Sadly, the three best players in the world right now are in the same half of the draw.
There is no doubting the fact that this trio consists of Ronnie, Robbo and Ding Junhui, the latter having collected the last two ranking event trophies in Shanghai and New Dehli.
Indeed, the bottom half of the draw is awash with star-studded names with Scotsmen John Higgins and Stephen Maguire, not to mention Welsh duo Mark Williams and Matthew Stevens, who are always dangerous in longer formats, all included.
Trump, who somewhat egotistically claimed on Twitter a couple of days ago that he was going to defend his title and make a 147 break en route, is joined in the top half by the likes of Mark Selby, Mark Allen and Barry Hawkins.
There are too many individual first round ties to preview but the ones that automatically stand out as potentially intriguing ties are:
Shaun Murphy vs David Gilbert
Cao Yupeng vs Ding Junhui
Peter Ebdon vs Jack Lisowski
Stephen Maguire vs Kyren Wilson*
The asterisk beside Wilson’s name is because the 21 year-old Englishman is one of four men who must go through the dreaded wildcard round. The others are veterans Steve Davis, Jimmy White and Alan McManus.
One suspects that the eventual champion will come from the bottom bracket and, while most eyes will be on O’Sullivan, reserve some attention for Ding who is bidding for an extremely rare hat-trick of rankers.
Either way, it promises to be an enthralling week of action as one of snooker’s fledgling, but already prospering, events takes place in the Far East.
The full draw can be viewed by clicking here.