The 2018 Dafabet Masters gets under way on Sunday at the Alexandra Palace in London.
Sixteen of the best snooker players on the planet will battle it out in the English capital for the right to claim the Paul Hunter Trophy, traditionally the most prestigious invitational that’s competed for every year.
Many players and fans alike place the Masters second only to the World Championship itself as the most important event on the calendar, primarily because of the elite line-up that assembles every year.
Generally contested between only the top 16 in the world rankings, this year’s edition includes a couple of notable absentees from the list.
Former champion Neil Robertson left it one tournament too late as his Scottish Open triumph in December, which launched him back up to 15th in the world rankings, was a week after the cut-off point for the Masters qualification occurred following the conclusion of the UK Championship.
While Robertson is consigned to a punditry role on Eurosport, Stuart Bingham is another who will have to watch from the sidelines as his suspension for betting doesn’t end until the end of this month.
Ryan Day and Liang Wenbo were the fortunate players who were able to take advantage despite actually starting 2018 outside the top 16 bracket in the standings.
The pair is among a group of proven winners on the tour with all 16 boasting the experience of capturing ranking event silverware in the past, meaning all of the competitors should be considered as credible candidates for the £200,000 top prize.
That said, they’ll all have to find a way to upset defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan in a venue that he has made his home in recent years.
The “Rocket” has emerged victorious in three out of the last four Masters tournaments, including the last two when he added a record sixth and seventh titles to his collection, ensuring that he’s the obvious 5/2 favourite in the snooker betting odds.
O’Sullivan was the form man at the tail end of 2017 with a hat-trick of ranking triumphs to his credit, among them a terrific success in York when he collected a record-equalling sixth UK crown.
The 42 year-old loves the Masters because of its prestige, the lucrative pot of money on offer, and the fact that he can be tested against only the best that the game has to offer.
In other words, it’s a numpty-free zone and O’Sullivan usually thrives under these kinds of conditions – highlighted further by a stellar record at the similarly styled Champion of Champions.
The world number two’s first obstacle is Marco Fu, who he beat in last year’s semi-finals en route to defending his crown at the Ally Pally.
In fact, despite once being heralded as a sort of bogey player for O’Sullivan, Fu hasn’t been able to get one over on the five-time world champion since 2009 and his form this season would suggest that poor streak is set to continue.
With an abundance of talent and proven champions on display, pretty much all of the ties represent humdinger fixtures but there are one or two that do perhaps stand out a little above the rest.
One such example is the encounter between Mark Selby and Mark Williams, a pair of cueists who tend to conjure up special battles when they face one another.
Twelve months ago, they clashed at the same stage with the world number one coming out on top in a 6-5 thriller.
Selby has a terrific record at the Masters with a trio of titles to his credit but the Leicester man, for all of his success in recent years, hasn’t actually tasted glory in this tournament since 2013.
Northern Ireland Open champion Williams is one of six former Masters champions in the draw and, should he prevail against one of the pre-tournament favourites, would have to be considered as a major threat.
Two of the other eye-catching matches involve Judd Trump’s affair with Liang and Mark Allen’s bout against debutant Luca Brecel.
The quartet is considered among the most entertaining group of players in the game to watch and, on their days, they can each produce an almost unstoppable standard of play.
But for all that, they only have one major title to show for their talents between them with Trump’s sole UK Championship victory incredibly coming way back in 2011.
For Brecel, the 22 year-old is still at the very outset of his journey to potentially the very pinnacle of the sport so there’s plenty of time on his side but, even though they are all still relatively young in snooker terms, Liang, Allen, and especially Trump must be disappointed with their overall return from the biggest events.
For two of them, it’ll be a familiar story come the end of round one when they’ll be prematurely heading for the exit doors again but how far can their successors go?
Elsewhere, John Higgins takes on the only other first-timer in the draw with fellow Scotsman Anthony McGill providing a friendly face for the two-time champion.
The two pals, of course, met in the final of the Indian Open earlier in this campaign, with the former coming out on top to claim a 29th ranking event title of an illustrious career.
Higgins, despite his name having been etched twice on the Masters trophy, has never really enjoyed too much of a love affair with this tournament but should never be written off and even admitted that he enjoyed a new lease of vigour for the game after watching old rival O’Sullivan romping to another glory at the Barbican last month.
Elsewhere, Ding Junhui and Shaun Murphy, two others who know what it takes to be triumphant in this event, are challenged by Day and Ali Carter respectively.
Even though Ding has a ranking event victory safely locked away from this season, the Chinese number one’s form has typically been awful in recent months and it’s difficult to predict which kind of Ding is going to turn up.
It’s not unusual for the 30 year-old to go through barren spells like this before suddenly emerging out of nowhere with his A-game intact, ensuring that he is always a dangerous contender to reckon with, but whether his recent eye troubles will prolong this period of lull remains to be seen.
Murphy, on the other hand, has been arguably the player of the season so far behind O’Sullivan, with runs to three ranking event finals and a tremendous triumph in the Champion of Champions at the expense of the latter to boot.
Finally, 2016 runner-up Barry Hawkins and Kyren Wilson play each other in probably the least glamorous tie of the first round.
Yet, both are well capable of challenging come the business end of proceedings and they’ll each likely be quietly pleased with their draw, having escaped some of the traditional heavy-hitters and marquee names at the opening hurdle.
As ever, it’s extremely difficult to predict the outcome and a better gauge of who’s going to realistically contend may be generated after we see all the players in action over the course of the first few days.
Whether anyone can stop a rampant O’Sullivan, though, remains the key and defining question.
Live coverage of the Masters will be provided by the BBC and Eurosport.