The German Masters, one of the best tournaments on the calendar, gets under way on Wednesday in Berlin.
Ever since its introduction in 2011 the ranking event has been a resounding success, aided in large part thanks to the enthusiastic sell-out crowd that packs the 2000-plus capacity Tempodrom arena every day each year.
Not only that, but it has proved to have produced some of the most exciting snooker as well with the players benefiting from both the electric atmosphere created by the German fans and also the opportunity to fine tune their skills ahead of the season’s finale.
China’s Ding Junhui returns as the defending champion in markedly different form to that of this time 12 months ago.
At this point during the last campaign, the 27 year-old had already bagged a hat-trick of ranking event titles and would go on to win the China Open following his success in Germany.
However, a sole triumph in an Asian Tour satellite event remains Ding’s only silverware attained this season and he has suffered plenty of early exits in the bigger competitions.
All the players who have reached this stage have already won two ties to get here so Ding’s last 32 encounter is against Welshman Ryan Day – a player who has been in and out of form since losing 6-5 to Ding at the semi-final stage here in 2014.
Still, the 34 year-old will surely fancy his chances of recording a rare victory over a top 4 competitor as he attempts to pounce on Ding’s recent frailties.
With Alfie Burden or Michael Georgiou the awaiting opponent in the subsequent round, and with Stuart Bingham the only other main threat in the top quarter of the draw, victory for either Ding or Day could represent a very realistic opportunity of at least orchestrating another last four berth.
The remaining three sections all appear slightly more difficult to call on paper.
Ronnie O’Sullivan returns to Germany for the first time since he emerged victorious in front of a jubilant crowd in 2012 and will undoubtedly start as favourite once again.
Yet, he has a tricky opener in fellow Englishman Mark Davis, a player who beat the ‘Rocket’ to win the fifth Championship League group stage last week – albeit over a shorter best-of-five format.
2011 champion Mark Williams takes on Northern Ireland’s Mark Allen in what must be the match of the round, with the pair and in-form Masters winner Shaun Murphy representing potential quarter-final opponents for O’Sullivan.
The bottom half of the draw promises to be just as competitive.
Neil Robertson will be seeking to bounce back from his poor performance in the final at Alexandra Palace last month but first faces a resolute Fergal O’Brien, who has had some good results over the course of the campaign.
Robertson will be expected to win but it will be interesting to see if the Australian has any hangover following his heavy defeat to Murphy and an ensured prolonged tactical battle with the Dubliner could be exactly what he doesn’t need.
Stephen Maguire, runner-up to O’Sullivan in 2012, and Barry Hawkins are other considerable threats in this quarter, although the latter’s form has been questionable of late to say the least.
Finally, the bottom section features the likes of world champion Mark Selby and UK runner-up Judd Trump, with John Higgins and Peter Ebdon dueling in a battle of the veterans.
Scotland’s Higgins has shown glimpses of a return to form in the last couple of months and his performance against an enduring Ebdon will tell a lot of whether or not he has been able to find any more consistency.
Selby’s opener is against another Scot in Anthony McGill while Trump takes on Michael Holt.
With the majority of the star competitors in attendance it’s difficult to pick an overall winner but, as ever, it’s equally hard to look past O’Sullivan when pushed.
That said, I think O’Sullivan’s defeat in the semi-final of the Masters will offer hope to the others that, if they play their A-game, they can overcome the 39 year-old on his current displays.
A lot will depend on his first bout but O’Sullivan will no doubt feed off the big crowd in the kind of setting that he usually thrives on.
Regardless, I have a suspicion that the champion is going to come from the bottom half of the draw, with Judd Trump and Stephen Maguire my two potential picks for Sunday evening glory.
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