The first hectic period in this season’s schedule continues this week with the Northern Ireland Open in Belfast.
It marks the return of the potentially very lucrative Home Nations series, which comprises four tournaments in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales during this campaign.
Should someone manage the unlikely feat of capturing all four titles, the winner will receive an incredible £1 million bonus.
After the English Open in Manchester, only one contender remains in the hunt to pocket the prize, and that’s China’s Liang Wenbo.
Liang emerged victorious in October to collect a maiden ranking event crown when he overcame Judd Trump.
While few are predicting the 29 year-old can extend his run at Titanic Belfast over the coming days, the draw has significantly opened up in his favour.
Following their exits in England and a busy spell participating in successive invitational events this month, the likes of Mark Selby, Stuart Bingham and Neil Robertson had already decided not to enter.
The subsequent withdrawal from Judd Trump and Ali Carter, two of the fiercest opposition in Liang’s quarter, has considerably helped the Chinese no.2’s cause.
Indeed, Stephen Maguire is the highest ranked cueist standing between Liang and a semi-final berth next Saturday.
If he should reach that stage, excitement would surely begin to build, although the pressure he would be under would obviously be immense.
Elsewhere, there is still an array of star quality littered throughout the 128-man field.
Not least John Higgins, the Scot having already in November earned a whopping £300,000 for emerging triumphant in both the Evergrande Championship in China and the Champion of Champions.
The 41 year-old finds himself in the same quarter as Ronnie O’Sullivan, the player he denied glory in Coventry yesterday.
O’Sullivan could meet Jimmy White in the second round should they come through their initial tests, with the latter certainly up for this event in light of the trophy being named after his old friend and hero Alex Higgins.
Meanwhile, the match of the first round is arguably between Shaun Murphy and Luca Brecel.
Brecel has struggled since reaching the final of the German Masters at the outset of 2016, but an early victory over Murphy in the short best of seven format could reignite his form.
Home hopes rely mostly on Mark Allen’s shoulders, with the Antrim man faced with a challenge of a grudge match against Mark Joyce on Tuesday.
For whatever reason the pair has never seen eye to eye, something which has affected Allen’s performances when they have traded blows as Joyce holds an unusually superior head-to-head record.
Joe Swail will also be flying the Northern Ireland flag with pride in the first professional tournament staged in his country since 2008.
The two-time World Championship semi-finalist is up against Dominic Dale while blast from the past Patrick Wallace, an amateur invited to compete, begins versus Michael Georgiou.
With the short format and the vast number of players in action, as ever it’s tricky to predict a champion – something which will inevitably become clearer from the quarter-final stage when the number of frames increases in each subsequent round.
Like the English Open, the Northern Ireland Open will be available to watch on Eurosport throughout, but also on Saorview/Freeview channel Quest, which provide a bonus to viewers in Ireland and the UK by broadcasting all afternoon sessions and the final in its entirety.
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