It marks the first ranking event on the World Snooker Tour calendar in almost two months.
The Northern Ireland Open gets under way on Saturday with Judd Trump, Mark Selby, and Ronnie O’Sullivan among those set to enter the venue stages of the competition’s draw in Belfast.
After one of the longest lulls on the calendar in a decade, with the last ranking event having been completed at the end of August, the players will undoubtedly be keen to get back to competitive action.
The Waterfront Hall in Belfast will host the event, which this year is part of the European Series, for the fourth time since 2017, and with last year’s edition having been played behind closed doors in Milton Keynes it will be a welcome return for fans in the area.
Prize, History, and Format
The Northern Ireland Open has been an annual fixture on the calendar since 2016 when it was the second event on the newly branded Home Nations series that also included Opens in England, Scotland, and Wales.
All of those events remain on the schedule, but this season marks the first in which they make up half of the eight-leg European Series that is sponsored by BetVictor.
The leading money earner after those tournaments during the 2021/22 term will receive a handsome bonus worth £150,000.
As in previous years, the top prize in the Northern Ireland Open itself is £70,000, a tidy albeit somewhat mediocre sum considering the £100,000 that was on offer for the British Open champion in August.
Judd Trump is the top seed in this year’s Northern Ireland Open draw, and the Englishman has in fact won the event three times in a row with a hat-trick of 9-7 victories over Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Trump, who lost his coveted top spot in the world rankings to Mark Selby a month ago, is already guaranteed a return to the summit regardless of what happens next week thanks to the rolling two-year system that is in place.
While there were “qualifiers” of sorts in September, all of the top 16 players in the world rankings have had their first-round matches held over to Belfast, which means they will have to win an extra match from here on in order to lift the Alex Higgins Trophy next Sunday.
The format otherwise remains the same as in previous editions, with best-of-seven matches for the first four rounds, and a gradual increase thereafter before the best-of-17 final.
2021 Northern Ireland Open Draw
Trump, then, will begin his bid for a fourth Northern Ireland Open title on the trot when he takes on Andrew Pagett on Sunday in the last 128 of the draw.
The only other two players to have etched their names onto the trophy are Mark King and Mark Williams, who won in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
King has already booked his spot in the last 64, where he could intriguingly face Barry Hawkins in what would be a repeat of the final from that inaugural staging five years ago.
Williams takes on Mark Joyce in the first round, with world champion Mark Selby in action against Mark Lloyd and Ronnie O’Sullivan entering the fray against Stuart Carrington.
All of the other usual protagonists such as John Higgins, Neil Robertson, Shaun Murphy, and Kyren Wilson will be hoping to challenge, while Ding Junhui is the only notable name from the elite bracket who has chosen not to enter.
With so few opportunities to earn money during this campaign up until this point, there will surely be pressure on a lot of the players all the way down the rankings list to perform.
Including the Northern Ireland Open, there are only a few ranking events taking place before the cut-off point for qualification for this season’s prestigious Masters, which means the likes of Martin Gould, Ali Carter, and David Gilbert will be looking for strong performances in order to close the gap to those in the top 16.
Selected Upcoming Matches
Judd Trump vs Andrew Pagett
Mark Allen vs Si Jiahui (a)
Shaun Murphy vs Bai Langning (a)
Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Stuart Carrington
Yan Bingtao vs Hossein Vafaei
Barry Hawkins vs Iulian Boiko
Kyren Wilson vs Jamie Clarke
Mark Williams vs Mark Joyce
Gary Wilson vs Jordan Brown
Mark Selby vs Mark Lloyd (a)
Click here to view the full draw (times: CET)
Where to Watch the Northern Ireland Open
The tournament will be available to UK and Irish viewers on Quest TV in addition to blanket Eurosport coverage provided across all of Europe.
Various broadcasters around the world will be offering coverage (information here), while fans in territories without another service can access the event through Matchroom.Live.
Featured image credit: WST