Viva la Riga!
After one of the most prolonged spells of downtime on the professional circuit in years, snooker returns on Friday in the Latvian capital for the first ranking event of the new season – the Riga Masters.
Okay, so in the beginning of July a bout of qualifying round matches took place in a hot and humid Preston Guild Hall but, aside from that, not much has been going on since the climax of the World Snooker Championship way back at the start of May.
Whereas in the last few campaigns the action has pretty much run on a 12-month calendar in which the summer’s play often felt tediously stilted, this year players, fans, and even us media can return nicely refreshed and raring to go for what promises to be another hectic schedule of entertainment to come.
There are one or two more barren weeks in the next month or so to suffer through but, for the most part, it’s full steam ahead for the 2018/19 campaign.
This time celebrating its fifth staging and third as a full ranking event, the Riga Masters has also become the annual season opener with it hosting the curtain raiser every year since 2016.
Ryan Day is back as the defending champion after he memorably banished the label of being the best player in the game to have never won a ranking tournament with his triumph over Stephen Maguire just over twelve months ago – a victory that led to undoubtedly his best season on the Main Tour.
The 38 year-old, who also collected the Gibraltar Open and Romanian Masters trophies last season, received a bye in the qualifying round but already faces a stiff challenge in his first tie as he comes up against the “Captain” Ali Carter.
With the format utilising the short best of seven frames all the way up until the semi-final stage, rustiness could possibly play a part in several of the early outcomes and this event might represent a decent opportunity for one of the lesser fancied players to go deep into Sunday’s final proceedings.
That said, while the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Selby, Judd Trump, and John Higgins all opted out of entering this competition, there weren’t that many upsets for the remaining marquee names when the qualifying round took place a few weeks ago.
Former Riga champions Neil Robertson and Barry Hawkins are both in the draw, with each set to face Chinese opposition in the last 64 in the Li pairing of Yuan and Hang respectively.
World champion Mark Williams is the top seed and will play Ben Woollaston for a spot in the last 32 while the likes of Shaun Murphy, Mark Allen, Kyren Wilson, Luca Brecel, Anthony McGill, and last year’s runner-up Maguire all feature too.
It’s difficult to make any realistic predictions with this one as it’s hard to say what kind of form each player is going to be in after the lengthy period of respite but one of the usual crop of ten to twelve contenders generally ends up emerging with the spoils.
While the prize fund isn’t the biggest on offer this season – in fact it’s one of the smallest – the £50,000 winner’s cheque could still go a long way to helping safeguard a position in one of the numerous races that make up the various subplots throughout the campaign.
For players down the bottom of the rankings list, they will be hoping to earn a nice early packet in order to boost their chances of making it inside the top 64.
Elsewhere and for all the players to consider, the lucrative Ladbrokes Series towards the end of the campaign will consist of all of the season’s top money earners.
Of course, for the numerous competitors hovering just in or just outside of the coveted top 16 places, where a Masters invitation beckons come the end of December, an early headstart could prove vital.
Plenty of reason then to take the Riga Masters seriously and it’ll be interesting to see which player can get his season off to the best possible start.