The seventh main ranking event of a busy season gets under way tomorrow with the German Masters in Berlin.
There have been plenty of success stories since the outset of the Barry Hearn era and the influx of new tournaments onto the calendar, but the German Masters is arguably the biggest and best.
Played in front of more than 2,000 enthusiastic fans in the spectacular Tempodrom arena, this event has captured the essence of the level of hope there is for the sport’s progression in the future.
China is undoubtedly leading the way in terms of numbers watching, playing and investing, but Mainland Europe has been just as important a revelation.
Germany is at the forefront of a popularity spike in the continent that also includes Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland and Bulgaria.
So much so that this is in fact the third tournament to be staged in the country this season, following a brace of European Tour events won by Mark Allen and Ronnie O’Sullivan.
The latter, in a nonchalant mood that he has been largely able to avoid in recent times, lost 5-4 to Thepchaiya Un-Nooh in the qualifying round back in December.
It is a huge shame for both the paying public and the player himself, not least because he is a former champion having taken the honours in a wonderful final against Stephen Maguire in 2012.
Indeed, that victory lay the foundations for greater things to come, as he went on to capture his fourth world title in May of that year.
O’Sullivan’s loss is everyone else’s gain, though, and most of the field will be thankful that he was so flippant about proceedings in Barnsley – especially considering how easily he dispatched of a high-quality line-up at the Masters earlier this month.
Anyway, in other areas of the world the crowd may feel aggrieved at the absence of the ‘Rocket’ but the German fans show so much educated enthusiasm for the game that any memory of the 38 year-old will be a distant one once the first break-off is made.
Ali Carter is the defending champion this week and begins his defence on the opening day against Thailand’s Dechawat Poomjaeng.
Carter has had much publicised problems with his health but appears to be making his way back to full strength.
His quarter of the draw is, on paper, slightly easier than the rest, despite boasting the likes of Stuart Bingham and Barry Hawkins.
Practice partner Jimmy White could potentially be a last 32 opponent but the ‘Whirlwind’ has a tricky opener in Shanghai Masters runner-up Xiao Guodong.
Two players in this segment who could potentially go far are Anthony Hamilton and Ryan Day.
Former Crucible quarter-finalists, Hamilton has been in solid form all season while Day had good runs against quality opposition in two Championship League groups last week.
The second quarter of the draw in the top half is considerably more loaded with your more typical top players.
Mark Selby, Ding Junhui, Mark Allen, John Higgins and Mark Williams all feature here and picking a quarter-finalist from that bunch wont be easy.
There are also a couple of feasible underdogs who could advance, especially Ireland’s David Morris who has performed excellently since his return to the Main Tour and will fancy his chances against 2011 champion Williams.
The third quarter is not quite as dangerous but still features several names who could potentially reach the business end of the tournament.
World no.1 Neil Robertson, just 23 centuries shy of a magical 100 for this campaign alone, has a tricky enough opener in China’s Liu Chuang and could face later challenges from a pair of former finalists in Berlin, Marco Fu and Stephen Maguire.
One interesting tie here could be the All-Chinese affair between Liang Wenbo and Cao Yupeng, both of whom hoping that a morale-boosting victory could spark some sort of run – though a Maguire displaying signs of a return to form should await one of them in the next round.
The bottom quarter has opened up following the defeat of O’Sullivan.
Theoretically, Judd Trump should be the favourite here but he is still rather inconsistent despite some promising performances in the Championship League.
Irishmen Ken Doherty and Fergal O’Brien have difficult clashes against Shaun Murphy and Matthew Stevens respectively – as an aside, can you believe it’s almost nine years since Murphy and Stevens contested the 2005 World Championship final?
There are opportunities for players here all over the place, but an intriguing encounter between veterans Peter Ebdon and Alan McManus could initiate a challenge from either.
Much like Morris, Gary Wilson has been the star newcomer to the tour this year and will be confident of at least advancing to the last 32 having drawn Welshman Daniel Wells.
As ever, these tournaments are extremely difficult to predict but it will be particularly interesting to note if the trend of overseas players attaining glory in the rankers continues.
Taking how the draw unfolded into consideration, I’m thinking this is a good opportunity for Trump to return to winning ways, and he’s my reluctant tip for the title.
Then again, any one of about 10 or 12 could be taking in the wonderful standing ovations the German crowds so generously provide come Sunday night.
Either way, we should be in for an enjoyable week in what has become one of the best in the snooker calendar.
The full draw can be viewed by clicking here.