The most prestigious invitation event of the season gets under way on Sunday with the Dafabet Masters at Alexandra Palace.
The top 16 players in the world rankings will go head to head for the coveted title in London, with a handy £200,000 on offer for the champion.
Not only would the money be useful, but the recognition of emerging victorious in one of the sport’s majors would significantly enhance one player’s career credentials.
The draw is so steeped in quality that an argument could confidently be made for any single competitor to become triumphant on Sunday week.
Defending champion Shaun Murphy kicks off the action on the opening day, in what is one of the best ties in a glittering first round draw against Mark Allen.
The Englishman overcame Allen in the semi-finals en route to his maiden Masters victory 12 months ago and will be hoping to kickstart what has been a consistent, yet unspectacular, campaign for him so far.
Northern Ireland’s Allen is still seeking to capture his first major trophy in perhaps what has been a longer wait than many had originally predicted.
Both cueists will probably look at their quarter of the draw as an opening to reach at least the last four with Barry Hawkins and Joe Perry also featuring in their section.
While great competitors, this duo represent two of the least likely to go on and taste glory having only won a single match between them across 12 encounters in the competition.
One player who obviously most will be looking out for is Ronnie O’Sullivan, who makes his return to our television screens following an eight month self-imposed respite.
The ‘Rocket’ did return at last month’s German Masters qualifiers, displaying plenty of rust in losing 5-3 to Stuart Carrington, but seemed to dust off some of the cobwebs in topping Group 1 of the Championship League earlier this week.
The five-time champion takes on old rival Mark Williams for a place in the last 16 with many people wondering which Ronnie will turn up.
Despite recently turning 40, O’Sullivan still has the game to be the world’s best player and if he brings any degree of consistency to the table – remember, it’s only four victories required – he will undoubtedly be a huge threat once again.
However, an intriguing quarter-final tie potentially awaits with Mark Selby first battling with Ricky Walden.
Should the world no.1 and O’Sullivan advance, it would mark a compelling first meeting between the pair since their 2014 World Championship final at the Crucible.
Meanwhile, the in-form Neil Robertson – champion in the last two big TV tournaments – has fellow overseas player Marco Fu for company.
Robertson, finalist in three out of the last four years, is being understandably labeled as one of the pre-tournament favourites but it’s so difficult in this era to maintain any degree of dominance.
This was partly highlighted by the Australian’s shock defeat in the German Masters qualifiers and it will be interesting to see what kind of form he possesses following the brief winter break.
Robertson or Fu will play either Judd Trump or Stephen Maguire for a semi-final berth.
Somewhat surprisingly, not only have the latter pair never lifted the Masters trophy, but neither of them have even made an appearance in the final.
The Scot has four semi-finals to his credit, with Trump just one, perhaps best illustrating how difficult it is to emerge triumphant from such an illustrious band of names.
Finally, two Chinese players going in opposite directions compete in the fourth quarter.
Liang Wenbo will be hoping to continue the form which led to his remarkable run to the UK Championship final in December when he takes on two-time winner John Higgins.
His compatriot Ding Junhui, though, is rapidly dropping down the rankings and, away from this event which doesn’t reward ranking points, is struggling to automatically qualify for this year’s World Championship.
Ding meets Stuart Bingham, the man who claimed the spoils in Sheffield last May, in desperate need of a couple of morale-boosting victories.
As always, a difficult Masters to predict then but one sure to enthrall with plenty of tight and thrilling encounters throughout.
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