The Shanghai Masters only concluded on Saturday but there’s no let up in the relentless snooker on the calendar at the moment as the Northern Ireland Open is set to begin tomorrow in Belfast.
The second of four tournaments in the Home Nations Series across Britain and Ireland, Mark King returns as the unlikely defending champion following his emotionally charged maiden ranking event success twelve months ago.
A dramatic 9-8 victory over Barry Hawkins, which sparked tears of joy amid memorable celebrations with his family and one of the post-match interviews for the ages, was a fitting conclusion to a well-appreciated competition that brought snooker back to Northern Ireland for the first time in almost a decade.
King will be looking to put up a good stab at his defence and the early part of his draw, which starts with a clash with struggling Aussie Matthew Bolton, looks quite kind all things considered.
Of course, the focus will primarily be on Ronnie O’Sullivan as the 41 year-old attempts to prolong his chances of acquiring the incredible one million pound bonus that’s on offer for any player who can claim all four Home Nations trophies.
O’Sullivan is the last man standing who can achieve the feat after his triumph in the English Open last month and his form has continued to excel in the weeks since that canter in Barnsley.
In capturing the Shanghai Masters with a crushing 10-3 defeat of Judd Trump, O’Sullivan reached a milestone landmark of 30 ranking event wins, taking him just six behind all-time leader Stephen Hendry.
Whether all the playing time and the sheer quantity of success he has had on the table of late will work in his favour or not remains to be seen, as the “Rocket” will surely eventually begin to feel the effects of a taxing period on the circuit that has seen the top players swing back and forth between the UK and China on a weekly basis.
However, the former world number one has boasted a consistency that hasn’t been seen in his game for years and his general demeanor both on and off the baize, relaxed but focused, has been completely ominous for the majority of his unwitting challengers.
O’Sullivan will play German rookie Lukas Kleckers in the first round and has the likes of Kyren Wilson, John Higgins, and Anthony McGill in his quarter of the draw.
With the first four hurdles to be negotiated over the best of seven frames, it will obviously be difficult to predict who can emerge as a contender come the business end of proceedings next weekend.
The field is strong, though, with world champion Mark Selby and Chinese number one Ding Junhui representing the major faces absent from the Waterfront Hall.
Most of the remaining heavy hitters have entered, including Neil Robertson, who’ll be looking for a strong showing as he tries to make a late dash to squeeze into one of the final places left for the upcoming Masters in January.
Judd Trump, Shaun Murphy, Luca Brecel, Ryan Day, Michael White, and Mark Williams – all winners on the tour this season in ranking events or invitationals – are in the mix while the local support will of course be turning to Antrim boy Mark Allen to keep the Alex Higgins Trophy on home turf.
The 31 year-old has been in rejuvenated form in the first half of this campaign after a spell in the doldrums and he’ll be looking for a fast start against Sanderson Lam on the opening evening of play.
Joe Swail, Gerard Greene, and amateur Jordan Brown are also in the field for Northern Ireland while Ken Doherty, Fergal O’Brien, Josh Boileau, and Leo Fernandez will seek to gain from the Irish backing as well.
Live coverage of the Northern Ireland Open will be provided by Eurosport and Quest TV.
Click here to view the draw. (Times: CET)