Preview: The Masters

The 2017 Dafabet Masters gets under way on Sunday at the Alexandra Palace in London.

O'Sullivan Selby 2014 Masters
Can Selby and O’Sullivan meet for a fourth time in a Masters final? Photo credit: Monique Limbos

As the defending champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan returns hoping to claim the title for a record seventh time.

Standing in his way are the 15 other strong competitors who make up the elite top 16 in the world rankings – the usual requirement for invitation into this prestigious 42-year old event.

Since its inception in 1975, the Masters has grown to become one of the most coveted trophies sought after on the calendar.

This is underlined by its roll of honour, an illustrious group of names who each correlate in adding to snooker’s rich history.

The 43rd edition of the Masters will arguably feature the finest line-up ever, with all 16 players being respected ranking event champions in their own right.

On the opposite side of the draw to O’Sullivan is world no.1 Mark Selby, unquestionably the player of the last 12 months.

Selby beat the ‘Rocket’ to capture a second UK title in December, capping off a wonderful year which saw him also seal a second World Championship crown, collect three further trophies, and consolidate his place at the top of the rankings by an incredible margin.

Many will be hoping that the Leicester man and O’Sullivan, who have fought in three previous Masters finals since 2009, are on course for a repeat showdown following their thrilling encounter in York.

They are undeniably the two favourites for success next week but it would be foolish to write off any of the other pretenders in what is a stellar cast.

O’Sullivan’s first test comes against English Open champion Liang Wenbo, someone the 41 year-old is close to off the table.

On the baize all friendship will be put to one side and it comes as no surprise that O’Sullivan boasts a superior head-to-head record against the Chinese no.2.

Indeed, Liang has triumphed only once in seven previous meetings and let slip a 4-1 lead when the duo last clashed during the Shanghai Masters in September.

O’Sullivan has only lost in the last 16 three times since his debut in 1994 and has featured in an amazing eight out of the last 13 finals – plus he didn’t even compete in the 2013 Masters.

This will just be Liang’s second appearance in the Masters and it remains to be seen whether this enigmatic character will be able to live up to the pressure of a first round tie with the favourite on the opening afternoon, in front of what will surely be a boisterous crowd.

Wilson, O’Sullivan and Selby won the exhibition Legends Cup for England alongside captain Jimmy White last weekend at Goffs against Ireland. Photo credit: Monique Limbos

For Selby, the three-time champion faces a tough task against Welshman Mark Williams, who similarly knows what it feels like to win this title.

The latter’s re-spotted black ball victory over Stephen Hendry in an absorbing 1998 final which went the distance has a rightful place alongside the sport’s most memorable moments.

Williams has his work cut out for him against an in-form Selby but he does possess a solid overall record against the ‘Jester’ and could provide a stern first challenge for the bookies’ second favourite.

Elsewhere, the draw is obviously littered with competitive ties which will prove difficult to call.

John Higgins and Mark Allen meet in one of the most eye-catching matches of the first round.

Although Higgins was one of the best players at the climax of 2016, and in fact overcame Allen in both the China and UK Championships, the Scot did lose to Allen at this same stage in 2015.

Higgins, a two-time winner of the Masters, has actually fallen at the first hurdle an almost unbelievable 11 times.

Allen is still in search of his first major trophy and hasn’t even featured in the final of a Triple Crown event since 2011.

The 30 year-old can produce levels of play that can match the best of them but his lack of consistency, often even during single encounters, is predominantly his downfall.

The confidence he would gain from a major triumph could catapult him into the higher echelons but whether or not he can fulfill this ambition is the key question that remains unanswered.

Another intriguing tie sees former winner Ding Junhui battle the only debutant this year in Kyren Wilson.

Ding has a love-hate relationship with this tournament, mostly loathing in recent times as he has strangely failed to move beyond the first round since his 2011 success.

The draw early on is slightly in the Shanghai Masters champion’s favour, though.

Ding Masters
Ding also lost to O’Sullivan in the 2007 final. Photo credit: Monique Limbos.

Ding will be hoping to take advantage of Wilson’s inexperience at this level to finally get into the quarter-final again, where he would meet either Stuart Bingham or Joe Perry.

The latter pair represent Ding’s conquerors from the last two campaigns but both Englishmen possess distinctly poor Masters statistics.

Should Ding get to the last four he could start to fancy his chances of another tilt at glory in the tournament.

In the other three encounters, Neil Robertson meets Ali Carter, Judd Trump faces Marco Fu while Shaun Murphy and Barry Hawkins clash in another all-English duel.

The matches between Robertson and Carter, and Trump and Fu, both represent fixtures in which each player has already emerged victorious in a ranking event this season.

For Robertson and Carter those triumphs came quite some time ago now and the form of both players has suffered a dip since the summer months.

Hong Kong’s Fu produced the snooker of his career in romping to the Scottish Open title before Christmas and it’ll be interesting to see if he can carry that kind of standard into the New Year against Trump, who somewhat peculiarly has never gone beyond the semi-finals of the Masters.

Finally, last year’s runner-up Hawkins will seek to dispel the memories of that painful 10-1 demolition from O’Sullivan as he comes up against 2015 champion Murphy.

With a single table set-up from the outset, every ball as ever will be shown live on the BBC and Eurosport.

Let’s hope the players on show can meet and possibly exceed the growing expectations for this wonderful week of snooker.

Click here to view the draw.

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