In a tournament that’s competitive throughout, two of the biggest favourites begin their quest for a Masters title today at the Alexandra Palace in London.
Ronnie O’Sullivan and Ding Junhui have been kept on opposite sides of the draw and many will be hoping that the duo might set up a repeat of their final together in 2007.
Things were very different back then.
The Barry Hearn era had not yet come into fruition as the sport struggled for sponsors and investment.
Ding was an exciting new spotty teenager who had burst onto the scene with three ranking event titles before his 20th birthday.
Back then, his persona was defined by his tendency to petulantly slump in his chair, deflated, when things weren’t going his way.
This was never more evident than in the 2007 final when he was demolished 10-3 by O’Sullivan.
When the ‘Rocket’ had reached nine frames Ding thought the contest was over and ultimately needed consoling from his opponent, who could relate to similar emotional stress, to be convinced to continue.
Even worse, idiot hecklers from the crowd gave the teenager a cruel lesson as to how sport can be equally as cruel as it is rewarding and, scared and thousands of miles away from home, he was subsequently reduced to tears.
It took a long time for the Chinese Sensation to recover properly from that experience but, perhaps career-definingly, he did so at the Masters itself four years later when he beat Hong Kong’s Marco Fu 10-4 in the first all-Asian major final.
That triumph dispelled any heartache he may still have held onto following his crushing loss to O’Sullivan and, with an ever-growing temperament, Ding has now matured into one of the all-round perfect players.
This season the 26 year-old has been a revelation, with a further hat-trick of ranking event trophies coming in successive competitions bringing his tally up to nine – and his world ranking up to a career high of number three.
Ding couldn’t add to that with a third UK Championship before Christmas but the winter break arguably came at just the right time as he was able to recharge his batteries after an extremely busy schedule.
2005 world champion Shaun Murphy is Ding’s opponent in the last 16 today, a player who has also gone to considerable lengths in an attempt to rejuvenate his own career.
The 2012 runner-up has lost a substantial amount of weight in recent months as he bids to earn some silverware for the first time in almost three years – an unbelievable amount of time for somebody of Murphy’s class.
With the form Ding has shown during this campaign it will be difficult for Murphy, though, and it will take a supreme effort to stop this Chinese express train.
In the evening session, the world champion continues his love-hate affair with the invitational tournament against Robert Milkins – a player he whitewashed in York in December.
I say love-hate, because despite reaching an impressive nine finals, Ronnie has actually lost more than half of those – five, to be exact.
His last victory came against Mark Selby five years ago before the ‘Jester’ reversed the scoreline in a classic a year later.
The pair could meet for a third time on Sunday, which plenty of people wouldn’t mind seeing, but there are a lot of big names in between now and that scenario becoming more likely.
O’Sullivan didn’t play in the Masters last year during his hiatus from the sport so it will be interesting to see what, if anything, we can make of his return.
We already know from this season that, when challenged with only the elite, he ominously comes out on top, as was the case with the inaugural Champion of Champions event that featured more or less the top 16.
The crowd, as always, will be on the 38 year-old’s side but even more so in the raucous pandemonium of his backyard in London.
Two champions elect then enter the fray on Tuesday. Will both still be standing come the end of the day?
As former world no.1 Judd Trump can testify to following his narrow defeat to Fu yesterday, it isn’t always that simple.
Well said about Ding, David, but like I predicted on the 9th of January in your article about the maximum from Shuan, the latter came out unbeaten in the match against Ding. Let’s see what will come out of that in the later stages. Can he reach a final?
He certainly can, but Fu is proving to be one of the players of the season as well so it doesn’t get any easier.