Snooker returns to our television screens after the Christmas break with the start of the 2015 Dafabet Masters at the Alexandra Palace on Sunday.
Returning to defend the prestigious title he claimed for a fifth time in 2014 is Ronnie O’Sullivan, who has continued his imperious form by capturing the Champion of Champions and UK Championship crowns in recent months as well.
Despite a high-quality line-up that boasts 14 ranking event winners, the ‘Rocket’ remains the heavy favourite to continue his reign in London and equal Stephen Hendry’s record of six Masters successes.
The fact that it is now 20 years since O’Sullivan’s maiden triumph in the tournament is testament to his continued longevity at the pinnacle of the sport.
Ricky Walden is the unfortunate player tasked with ending the 39 year-old’s challenge in the opening round and will surely not have fond memories of the pair’s previous duel in the competition.
In the quarter-finals last year O’Sullivan produced almost flawless snooker to inflict a 6-0 drubbing on his hapless opponent, accumulating a record 556 unanswered points in the process.
It’s unlikely that Walden will have to sit through a nightmare scenario like that again but that’s not to say he’s going to have a much better chance of causing an upset.
Despite having tasted glory in a big tournament already this season himself, in Chengdu at the International Championship, Walden has struggled for form of late – primarily due to a shoulder injury he has sustained.
Not only is it difficult to see how Walden can overcome O’Sullivan, likewise it isn’t immediately apparent who will prevent the Chigwell cueist from a third trophy of the campaign.
Fellow top four seeds Neil Robertson, Mark Selby and, in particular, Ding Junhui have all been performing short of their best for much of the season and it will be interesting to see if they have been rejuvenated by the winter break.
One would suspect that world no.1 Robertson should have enough in his last 16 clash with Robert Milkins, but the other two face more tricky ties on paper.
This is certainly the case for world champion Selby, who of course recently became a father for the first time with his wife Vikki.
The 31 year-old must tackle the in-form Shaun Murphy in what is surely the match of the opening round.
Murphy won consecutive European Tour events earlier in the season and is someone who will be looking at potentially joining the elite band of competitors who have completed the career Triple Crown.
Selby became the ninth player to achieve the feat when he emerged victorious at the Crucible last May and has a brilliant record when it comes to the Masters itself.
Indeed, the ‘Jester’ has contested the final in five out of the last seven editions, triumphing on three occasions.
Selby’s love-affair with the tournaments would suggest that he has the capability, regardless of form, to go on a run but whether that can result in another final remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, 2011 champion Ding is up against Joe Perry, who has played in almost double the amount of matches as his more illustrious Chinese opponent this season.
Ding has chosen not to play in the European Tour series for whatever reason and, with poor results coming in almost all of the ranking events so far, it is easy to reflect that the decision has come at a cost to his match sharpness.
Seasoned campaigner Perry, who has been in or around the top 16 in the world for years, came agonisingly close to his first ranking event title last June before losing in a deciding frame thriller to close friend Robertson.
The 40 year-old hasn’t had any deep runs in tournaments since then but has been solid and continued to notch up quite a lot of wins so is obviously match sharp.
You’d think that it’s only a matter of time before Ding rediscovers his form but this has to be seen as another potential banana skin for the 27 year-old.
O’Sullivan’s primary challenge these days appears to be coming from Judd Trump, who himself has finally returned to the spotlight following a sustained spell in the doldrums.
It would not be surprising to see another final rematch and I don’t think many would be disappointed if that eventuality transpired such was the entertainment value both manufactured in their previous bouts.
Stephen Maguire will have a lot to say about that, though, with the 33 year-old taking on Trump in the first round amid a good run of form that saw him capture Lisbon Open glory before Christmas.
The Scot will also be hoping to get his own back on the Australian Open champion, having lost to the 25 year-old three times already this season – most notably in the last four of the UK Championship last month.
The remaining three encounters feature six proven winners on the Main Tour.
Two-time champion John Higgins has never had the best of records in The Masters but, having returned to a modicum of form recently, could be facing Mark Allen at just the right time with the Northern Irishman seemingly heading in the opposite direction.
Whether he can maintain the consistency for four successive rounds is another question entirely.
Finally, Marco Fu and Ali Carter tackle Stuart Bingham and Barry Hawkins respectively.
Any one of these four has the potential to go the distance this week but, perhaps ominously, they will probably have to oust O’Sullivan before even entertaining the prospect of a final.
Regardless, with every day approaching a sellout, it promises to be a fascinating week of engrossing single-table snooker at the Ally Pally.
The schedule for the first round is:
Mark Selby v Shaun Murphy (Sunday January 11 at 1pm)
Stuart Bingham v Marco Fu (Sunday January 11 at 7pm)
Judd Trump v Stephen Maguire (Monday January 12 at 1pm)
Neil Robertson v Robert Milkins (Monday January 12 at 7pm)
Ronnie O’Sullivan v Ricky Walden (Tuesday January 13 at 1pm)
Barry Hawkins v Ali Carter (Tuesday January 13 at 7pm)
Mark Allen v John Higgins (Wednesday January 14 at 1pm)
Ding Junhui v Joe Perry (Wednesday January 14 at 7pm)
Format for subsequent rounds:
Quarter-final one (O’Sullivan / Walden v Bingham / Fu): Thursday January 15 at 1pm
Quarter-final two (Hawkins / Carter v Robertson / Milkins): Thursday January 15 at 7pm
Quarter-final three (Ding / Perry v Allen / Higgins): Friday January 16 at 1pm
Quarter-final four (Trump / Maguire v Selby / Murphy): Friday January 16 at 7pm
Semi-final one: Saturday January 17 at 1pm
Semi-final two: Saturday January 17 at 7pm
Final: Sunday January 18