Mark Allen begins his defence of the prestigious Masters at the Alexandra Palace on Sunday with a first round tie against Luca Brecel.
The 32 year-old finally fulfilled one of his long-held ambitions to claim a maiden Triple Crown title twelve months ago when he beat Kyren Wilson in the 2018 final in London.
Allen, who at the time was scrambling to maintain his status as an elite member of the top 16 in the world rankings, has gone from strength to strength since.
The Belfast potter has risen to a career-equalling sixth in the world standings following ranking triumphs in both the International Championship and the Scottish Open in recent months.
Allen also fell narrowly short of adding a second Triple Crown trophy to his collection in December when he lost out in the UK Championship final to a relentless Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Having seemingly discovered a higher level of consistency that was bereft from his game during his first decade on the Main Tour, Allen is now edging nearer to becoming the complete package.
The five-time ranking event winner has never lacked belief in his ability, stretching all the way back to his teenage years when he dominated the amateur scene at national, European, and world level.
Indeed, Allen’s comments earlier in this week that he’s the best player to ever come out of Northern Ireland were bold, but not without some merit.
“But I feel like I am the best snooker player that has ever come from Northern Ireland, although perhaps not the best winner yet.”
“I don’t want to speak out of turn,” said Allen, who reached the semi-finals of the World Snooker Championship in 2009.
“Obviously, Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor have won three world titles between them.
“In my mind, if I want to get in the conversation, I have to win the World Championship.
“If I do that, then perhaps I will deserve to be talked about in the same league as them.”
Allen undoubtedly possessed the talent required to be considered in the same league as those two famous champions from the Emerald Isle and, if the silverware keeps coming as it has done, it may only be a matter of time before the majority of others agree.
First on the agenda is the attempt to prolong his reign as the Masters champion – a challenge Allen, the 10/1 fourth favourite in the snooker betting, doesn’t shy away from.
“I’ve got to deal with the tag of being defending champion and whenever I have had it before I have done reasonably well,” said Allen, who defended the World Open in 2013.
“I don’t see why it should be different this time just because it is the Masters.”
“There is a lot of pressure with the Masters because it is an elite tournament, but I am looking forward to it.
“Everyone in the top 16 can play to a really high level.
“Ronnie O’Sullivan aside – because he is so talented – the difference is mental (and) they can all beat each other on any given day.
“Players like Mark Selby and Mark Williams do it more consistently because they are so strong mentally. The mind is so important in elite sport.”
Allen’s mind has rarely been more driven and the future looks bright for a player who has been in the higher echelons for what seems an age, but is still one of the younger members of the top 16.
Against Brecel in the first round he comes up against the youngest, but the 23 year-old has been struggling badly for more than a year and it would be a brave man to bet against Allen getting his Masters defence off to a positive opening.