The third last ranking event of a busy campaign gets under way on Monday with the start of the Ladbrokes Players Championship in Llandudno.
A high-quality field of 16 players will assemble in north Wales, with the £125,000 champion’s cheque providing the fourth biggest prize on offer for events staged in the UK.
Top seed Ronnie O’Sullivan heads a list of heavy-hitters who all gained an invitation to compete at the Venue Cymru as a result of being the 16 highest earners from ranking events this season.
O’Sullivan will be bidding for a record-equalling fifth ranking victory of a single term following his previous successes in the English Open, Shanghai Masters, UK Championship, and the recent World Grand Prix.
The “Rocket” faces Graeme Dott in the opening round after the Scot just about held on to the final berth thanks to Cao Yupeng’s defeat in the final of the Gibraltar Open earlier this month.
All eight encounters at the first hurdle of the Players Championship could be finals in their own right and it’s going to be incredibly difficult for anyone who attempts to pick a tournament winner.
O’Sullivan will obviously be the favourite given his superior form this season and also his tendency to do well in lucrative competitions on home soil that boast only the elite in the game – demonstrated by strong showings in both the Masters and the Champion of Champions in recent years.
However, there’ll be plenty of others ready to give the 42 year-old a run for his money and the best-of-11 format up until the final ensures that there will be no lucky wins, giving the event a suitably prestigious aura.
As a winner of two ranking events this season, Mark Williams is the second seed on the other side of the draw to O’Sullivan and will take on teenage talent Yan Bingtao, with a quarter-final place at stake.
One of the important subplots to the Players Championship will be the fight for the last available automatic spots for the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield next month.
Mark Allen, who meets China’s Ding Junhui, is currently holding on to the 16th and final position on the provisional Race to the Crucible rankings list and could become the first Masters champion who has to qualify for the sport’s blue riband swan song if he can’t substantiate his position with positive results in the coming weeks.
Breathing down the Northern Irishman’s neck is Ryan Day, who moved into 17th and just £4,000-odd shy of Allen in the standings after his Gibraltar Open victory a week ago.
Day requires a big performance in this tournament because he didn’t qualify for the China Open, so the Welshman will be desperate to take advantage of world number one Mark Selby’s desperate recent form and move through the rounds in one of his home events.
If the 37 year-old reaches the semi-finals, he could leapfrog not only Allen but also Stuart Bingham and Ali Carter too after the English pair failed to qualify for the Players Championship.
Scotland’s Stephen Maguire is also in a nice position to launch an attack on the top 16 and will be looking to pick up valuable ranking points both here and in Beijing in order to avoid the dreaded World Championship qualifiers.
Maguire tackles defending champion Judd Trump in the first round while Neil Robertson and Luca Brecel both have an opportunity to distance themselves from the top 16 cut-off point as they face each other in another intriguing battle on Tuesday – although the Belgian has been struggling with cue issues for several months.
Meanwhile, Kyren Wilson is set to play Shaun Murphy but the latter has raised doubts about his participation having last week pulled out of his defence of the Gibraltar Open due to recurring back issues.
Finally, the in-form John Higgins, winner of the Welsh Open for a record fifth time at the start of March, meets Anthony McGill in an all-Scottish affair.
Live coverage of the Players Championship will be on ITV4.
Last 16 Draw
Ronnie O’Sullivan (1) vs Graeme Dott (16)
Ding Junhui (8) vs Mark Allen (9)
Luca Brecel (5) vs Neil Robertson (12)
Judd Trump (4) vs Stephen Maguire (13)
John Higgins (3) vs Anthony McGill (14)
Shaun Murphy (6) vs Kyren Wilson (11)
Mark Selby (7) vs Ryan Day (10)
Mark Williams (2) vs Yan Bingtao (16)