The Masters gets under way on Sunday in London, with the prestigious invitational tournament kick-starting the 2023 schedule in snooker.
Many regard the event as second in stature only to the World Championship itself, and it’s easy to understand why given the pedigree of player that features in the lineup each season.
The start of this year’s edition, however, has been overshadowed by an ongoing investigation into alleged match-fixing in snooker.
- CLICK HERE: Former UK champion Zhao Xintong suspended
Zhao Xintong and Yan Bingtao had initially been included in the Masters draw but were replaced after coming under suspicious of being among the ten players from China who are embroiled in the scandal so far.
As a result, it’ll be the first time since 2006 that a Masters tournament will not have a competitor from China in the lineup.
But the show goes on, and it still promises to be a fascinating week with 16 of the best players in the world in action.
2023 Masters Draw & Schedule
Neil Robertson (1) vs Shaun Murphy (12)
Kyren Wilson (8) vs Stuart Bingham (14)
Three former Masters champions and the 2018 runner-up will contest the top quarter of the draw.
Neil Robertson returns as the defending champion and will take on Shaun Murphy in a repeat of the 2012 and 2015 title deciders in the English capital city.
It has been a strange season so far for Robertson, who has produced a string of incredible single-match performances only to come unstuck at the semi-final stage of several tournaments.
Murphy, meanwhile, showed signs of a return to form after a dismal spell with his run to the quarter-final of the UK Championship, and he should have subsequently beaten eventual English Open champion Mark Selby in Brentwood.
As it’s the first match of the tournament, there’s bound to be an amazing atmosphere at the Ally Pally with Murphy hoping to catch Robertson cold in his first match after the New Year.
The winner of this tie will face either former finalist Kyren Wilson or 2020 champion Stuart Bingham.
Wilson has been by far the more consistent of the two over the course of the last year or two, and he’ll start this encounter as a pretty sizable favourite.
That being said, the duo met at the same stage twelve months ago with all eleven frames needed to separate them.
Wilson came out on top on that occasion but a few months later Bingham prevailed from their most recent affair in the last 16 of the World Championship in Sheffield.
Mark Allen (5) vs Barry Hawkins (13)
Judd Trump (4) vs Ryan Day (15)
The best player of the season so far features in the other section of the top half in the 2023 Masters draw.
Mark Allen will begin his bid to secure back-to-back Triple Crown titles against last year’s beaten finalist Barry Hawkins.
Allen, whose UK Championship triumph in November came shortly after he defended his Northern Ireland Open title, looks a different animal this term.
The Pistol possesses a superior head-to-head record against Hawkins, although the latter has proven countless times in the past his ability to perform in these prestigious events.
It would be foolish, though, to ignore a potential firecracker quarter-final between Allen and Judd Trump to come.
Trump faces Ryan Day, who beat Allen to capture his biggest career title at the British Open in October – rejoining the top 16 in the world rankings in the process.
- CLICK HERE: Ryan Day lifts Clive Everton Trophy
It’s been a disappointing season for Trump, who by contrast is still searching for his first piece of silverware of the 2022/23 campaign.
There’s no secret that the Englishman has a poor overall record in Triple Crown events, considering his stature in the game.
Day will be hoping to take advantage of this, but the Welshman has never beaten Trump in an encounter of any significant length.
Mark Selby (3) vs Hossein Vafaei
John Higgins (6) vs Jack Lisowski (10)
The bottom half of the draw includes another four former champions, with two each in the third and fourth quarters.
Mark Selby would have been preparing to face Zhao Xintong this time last week, but the young Chinese star was suspended on Tuesday.
His replacement is Hossein Vafaei, who will become the first Iranian player to compete at the Masters.
It’s a terrific achievement for Vafaei, but one that he probably would have preferred to accomplish the more traditional way by ranking inside the top 16.
As it is, he’ll be hoping to make the most of his chance, and as it happens he faces an opponent he’s enjoyed plenty of success over.
Vafaei beat Selby in best-of-eleven ties at both the 2021 and 2022 UK Championships in York.
But since then, Selby has returned to the champion’s circle with his superb success at the English Open just before Christmas.
This time last year, the Jester made an honest revelation about his battles with depression, something that was clearly affecting his performances on the table.
A confident and focussed Selby is a dangerous prospect for anybody in any tournament, not least in a competition he’s already won three times.
Vafaei is a big-time player but will hardly have experienced the kind of atmosphere that will be generated at the Alexandra Palace, and on his debut it may turn out to be too much against somebody with such a formidable CV.
The winner will take on John Higgins or Jack Lisowski, who meet for the first time since their epic World Championship quarter-final clash that went the distance last April.
Higgins edged that battle and will likely start this one as the favourite again, although Lisowski came within a whisker of reaching the UK Championship final a couple of months ago.
Mark Williams (7) vs David Gilbert
Ronnie O’Sullivan (2) vs Luca Brecel (11)
All eyes will be on Ronnie O’Sullivan in the bottom quarter of the draw, with the Rocket looking to add to his record tally of seven Masters crowns.
O’Sullivan, already a winner this season in two other lucrative invitational events, faces the constantly improving Belgian Luca Brecel.
While O’Sullivan has thrown in a few lacklustre displays in recent months, the 47 year-old inevitably turns up at these kinds of prestigious events boasting elite fields.
Mark Williams and David Gilbert are in the same bracket, with the latter stepping in to replace the suspended Yan Bingtao.
Gilbert reached the last four on his two previous appearances in the Masters, but he has been struggling this season and even walked out of a qualifier mid-match in November.
Williams, on the other hand, arguably boasts the coolest temperament of anyone on the circuit.
But whatever happens in this match, it’s hard to look past O’Sullivan being the player who emerges with a spot in the semi-finals.
Prize, History, and Format
An annual fixture on the snooker schedule since 1975, the Masters is the second oldest Main Tour event with 2023 representing the 49th edition.
As a result it carries a huge amount of prestige that is magnified by its status as an invitational, normally granting participation to only those ranked inside the world’s top 16 on the official rankings list.
The roll of honour acts as a who’s who of the sport’s greatest protagonists, from its inaugural winner John Spencer to its most recent in Robertson.
The likes of Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Jimmy White, Paul Hunter, Cliff Thorburn, and Alex Higgins have enjoyed Masters success too.
There are nine former champions performing in the 2023 Masters schedule, with O’Sullivan bidding to claim a record-extending eighth crown.
Selby, Higgins, and Williams, and Robertson are the other multi-time winners competing again this year.
The Masters trophy is generally considered the biggest and most important to fight for other than the World Championship itself.
A tried and tested format will see the first three rounds contested over eleven frames before the best-of-19 final next Sunday, where the Paul Hunter Trophy and a whopping £250,000 will be on offer for the champion.
How to Watch the Masters
The full 2023 Masters schedule will be broadcast live on the BBC and Eurosport.
There are various other broadcasters around the world providing coverage of the Masters schedule, which can be viewed by clicking here.
For all other territories, the action can be followed on the Matchroom.Live streaming service via a subscription.
Featured photo credit: WST