The UK Championship draw has been made and the first Triple Crown event of the 2018/19 season is set for lift off on Tuesday at the Barbican Centre in York.
For almost two weeks, a field of 128 competitors will be attempting to land the sport’s second most prestigious ranking event on the calendar with Ronnie O’Sullivan defending the crown he won twelve months ago.
Victory for the “Rocket” over Shaun Murphy in the 2017 final brought him level on the all-time winners’ list alongside Steve Davis with six titles and O’Sullivan is again the favourite to go on and break that record in this edition.
O’Sullivan, who was just 17 when he first lifted the trophy 25 years ago, has been paired with Luke Simmonds – one of several amateurs making up the numbers – in the first round of the UK Championship draw.
The five-time world champion has been in terrific form already this term having collected silverware in both the Shanghai Masters and Champion of Champions, as well as reaching the business end of both Home Nations tournaments in Crawley and Belfast in recent weeks.
O’Sullivan has been handed a relatively kind draw with many of the established stars inside his quarter, like last year’s runner-up Murphy or two-time former champion Ding Junhui, not performing to their usual capabilities of late.
The ever-improving Jack Lisowski poses a possible danger with a fourth round tie maybe on the cards, although Lisowski has an additional distraction of the Race to the Masters, in which he currently lies 16th with only the top 16 in the word rankings being invited to the Alexandra Palace in London next month for the lucrative invitational.
The more likely threats to the 42 year-old’s challenge may come from elsewhere in the UK Championship draw, though, with Judd Trump also in the top half but set to avoid a potential rematch of their recent Northern Ireland Open final showdown until the semi-final stage in York.
Following a barren year on the circuit, Trump finally got back to winning ways earlier in November when he landed the ninth ranking title of his career and it’ll be interesting to see if he can build on that momentum.
On the way to York for the start of the uk championship… hoping for another win 😁
— Judd trump (@judd147t) November 26, 2018
Trump’s 2011 UK Championship success remains the 29 year-old’s sole glory in one of the sport’s three marquee events – the World Championship, UK, and Masters – a return that doesn’t seem to befit the talent that he obviously possesses.
The Englishman’s inability to stay consistent has been his downfall in numerous tournaments in which he has flattered to deceive, albeit consistency is a trait that almost every player struggles to attain.
Trump faces David Lilley in the opening round while John Higgins and Ryan Day meet Dechawat Poomjaeng and Joe O’Connor respectively in the same bracket.
The opposite side of the UK Championship draw features some of the other winners from the Main Tour this term.
China Championship winner Mark Selby plays James Cahill and an unlikely defeat for the world number one could leave an opening ajar for Mark Williams to regain the top spot in the rankings for the first time in seven years.
Selby has dominated the rankings lists since replacing Williams in 2011 and, indeed, has enjoyed a continuous run as the leading player on the standings since claiming the German Masters in 2015.
However, the latter has narrowed the gap significantly following a stellar year that included triumphs at the Crucible and in this season’s World Open.
With Selby’s earnings from winning the 2016 UK Championship set to be deducted from the two-year list, the “Jester” is in some danger of relinquishing his firm grip on the number one position for the first time in what seems like ages.
Williams, who entertains Adam Duffy in the last 128, has typically laughed off the prospect and has suggested that he doesn’t care whether he usurps Selby at the top or not – brandishing the feat as meaningless.
But it’s worth remembering how the Welshman once spoke so negatively of his chances of winning tournaments again after a six-year barren spell, and he has certainly been enjoying the spoils of those riches of late.
Been a while since we had a battle at the top of the world rankings due to @markjesterselby being so good and all that, but there’s an outside chance that Williams could pass him in York 👇 https://t.co/hQI0HsYSoI
— Matt (@ProSnookerBlog) November 21, 2018
Elsewhere, Neil Robertson is up against Kishan Hirani, Mark Allen plays Basem Eltehhan, and Kyren Wilson faces Andy Lee in the bottom half.
Even though there are some critics who yearn for the days of multi-session encounters all the way through to the final like in the old days, the UK Championship remains a suitably stern test and history has proven that the best players tend to emerge with the trophy in this event.
With the format in some of the other events – like in the inaugural Tour Championship that will be staged in March – bucking the trend of the last decade that saw the length of matches decrease rather than increase, some have questioned the validity of the UK Championship’s prestige.
But one thing all of those other competitions don’t have is as rich a history, underlined with a quick look at the roll of honour that makes it difficult to pick out even one name who stands out of place as an esteemed winner of the sport’s second oldest ranking tournament.
The journey over the next couple of weeks to see who can etch their name onto the cup on this occasion is sure to be as compelling as always.