The latest staging of snooker’s biggest invitational tournament is almost upon us as the Betfred Masters kicks off this Sunday.
Won last season by Stuart Bingham, this year’s tournament will inevitably look a little different with a change of both title sponsor and venue – with the tournament reverting to our sport’s temporary home in Milton Keynes. But the prestige remains the same with the world’s top 16 set to contest the title and add their names to an illustrious list of previous champions.
With a top prize of £250,000 and the coveted Paul Hunter Trophy at stake, the likes of 2019 champion Judd Trump, record seven time winner Ronnie O’Sullivan and eight other former Masters winners will be among those set to contest the title.
In terms of the field, there are three changes from 2020, with debutants Yan Bingtao, Thepchaiya Un-Nooh and the returning O’Sullivan in the draw in place of former Masters finalists Joe Perry, Barry Hawkins and last year’s runner-up Ali Carter.
The Top Quarter
Leading the Masters field for the first time is Stuart Bingham, who returns to the event 12 months after his memorable triumph last season at the Alexandra Palace looking to kickstart his 2020/21 campaign.
Notwithstanding his brilliant maximum breaks at the UK Championship and Championship League recently, ‘Ballrun’ has not reached a ranking event quarter-final since the 2019 World Open and has work to do if he is to qualify for the venue stages of the World Championship once again last this year.
With no ranking points on the line this week however, he can focus on an opening round clash with Thepchaiya Un-Nooh, with the Thai player set to make his first appearance in the competition.
The pair have met three times in ranking events, but never in a match of this length with Bingham having won best of seven frame matches at the 2018 English Open and 2014 Welsh Open tournaments, while Un-Nooh came out on top at the single frame Shoot Out in 2019. Bingham did however claim a 3-0 win only this Wednesday at the Championship League, a match which included his eighth career 147 break.
While Un-Nooh will not have the full experience as a Masters debutant without the eyes of a capacity London crowd upon him, the match remains a big occasion and not one without pressure for either player.
Awaiting the victor will be either Shaun Murphy or Mark Williams, both former winners of the event but neither having enjoyed the best run of form in recent months.
For Murphy, who lifted the iconic Waterford Crystal trophy back in 2015, his best result of the campaign to date came at the season-opening European Masters as he reached the semi-finals, but a last 32 run at the Scottish Open has represented his best performance since.
It is the same tournament at which Williams enjoyed his best run as he reached the last 16 before falling to Judd Trump during the first half of what has been a quiet season to date.
In terms of their head to head the pair cannot be separated with 14 victories apiece from all competitions, with their last meeting having been edged 10-9 by Murphy in the final of the 2019 China Championship.
The Second Quarter
Three-time Masters champion Mark Selby is set to begin his latest bid for title number four against reigning Tour Championship winner Stephen Maguire.
The pair have in fact met on three previous occasions at the tournament, with Selby coming out on top every time, most notably at the semi-final stage in 2010.
It is also Selby who comes into their latest clash in the better form, having already claimed both the European Masters and Scottish Open crowns this term to earn third place on the latest one-year ranking list.
For Maguire, who edged out Selby in their most recent meeting at the 2020 Players Championship, it has been a difficult campaign so far which has yet to yield better than a last 32 run as he has struggled to repeat the outstanding form he showed to win the Tour Championship last summer.
Selby narrowly leads their overall career head to head 15-14, although it is to be noted that he has been unable to reach the semi-finals of the tournament since his most recent run to the final in 2014, a surprising statistic given his outstanding record at the tournament early in his career.
With defending champion Stuart Bingham as one of the lower ranked players installed as top seed and reigning world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan seeded second, this has the knock-on effect that the players ranked second and fourth have been placed in the same quarter of the draw.
The consequence is that reigning UK Championship winner Neil Robertson is on course to potentially meet Selby in the last eight, with Yan Bingtao standing in the Australian’s way.
For Robertson the season has so far seen him maintain the consistent form that he showed throughout 2020, not with his memorable pink-ball victory against Judd Trump at the UK Championship, but also final appearances at the English Open and Champion of Champions. Second behind only Trump on the one-year ranking list and centuries chart, Robertson is targeting a fourth Masters final and a potential second title to add to his 2012 crown.
Opponent Yan meanwhile has had a solid season to date – with quarter-finals at the European Masters and Northern Ireland Open – without reaching the heights of his 2019/20 campaign which saw him qualify for the top eight Tour Championship.
Their head to head record is relatively brief, with one victory apiece, while it is of course their first meeting at the Masters with Yan set to make his debut next week.
World number one Judd Trump begins his quest for a second Masters title in three years with a match-up against 2019 semi-finalist David Gilbert on Sunday.
Trump’s success over the past two season is well-documented and his victory at the World Grand Prix shortly before Christmas ensured that he would head into the Masters with positive momentum following his defeat at the UK Championship just a couple of weeks prior.
In stark contrast, David Gilbert has struggled for consistency over the past 12 months, with eight first-round exits from ranking events in 2020. He has however won matches at invitational tournaments such as the Championship League, Champion of Champions and of course this tournament a year ago when he defeated Mark Allen and Stephen Maguire, before losing to eventual winner Stuart Bingham in the last four.
The head to head record favours Trump in all competitions (9-5), although perhaps surprisingly they have only met four times in ranking events and only twice in the past decade, with honours even.
The winner of Trump or Gilbert will await either Kyren Wilson or Jack Lisowski in the quarter-finals, a repeat match from the opening round of last season’s Masters.
On that occasion it was 2018 finalist Wilson who emerged as the winner (6-2), as he has from all four of their meetings since the start of the 2019/20 season. The ‘Warrior’ has enjoyed a strong season to date, victory at the Championship League backed up by five quarter-final appearances at ranking events, as well as a further last eight appearance at the Champion of Champions.
Lisowski on the other hand struggled for wins during the early part of the season, before at the UK Championship with his Masters qualification on the line, he was able to reach the quarter-finals to secure qualification. He followed this up with a run to his fourth career ranking final at the World Grand Prix, ultimately losing out to Trump.
Despite Wilson’s recent success in their head to head meetings, their overall record is tight, Lisowski 7-6 up having won four of their first five meetings.
The Bottom Quarter
John Higgins and Mark Allen meet at the Masters for a fifth time next Wednesday and perhaps surprisingly it is two-time champion Higgins who is looking to break his duck against an opponent, with Allen having won each of their previous meetings in the competition.
Most notably – and most recently – Allen ran out a 6-3 winner from their semi-final clash in 2018 on his way to claiming the title for the first time and the pair have not met in any competition during the three years that have followed prior to their upcoming clash. Their overall head to head is somewhat closer, with Allen shading it 11-10 in all competitions.
In terms of their respective seasons, it is Higgins who has had the marginally stronger season with a semi-final run at the English Open representing his best result, while of course Allen shone at the Champion of Champions by defeating the world’s top three ranked players to claim the campaign’s other major invitational tournament.
Last – but certainly not least – we have a meeting between record seven-time Masters champion Ronnie O’Sullivan and 2011 winner Ding Junhui and as will be the case with Higgins and Allen, it will be their fifth Masters showdown.
Also like Higgins and Allen, their past record of meetings has so far been one-way traffic, with O’Sullivan having prevailed on all four previous occasions, most recently in the 2019 semi-finals and most famously the 2007 title decider.
He also holds a 16-5 career advantage in all competitions and has only lost twice to Ding since 2006 in ranking events, although interestingly those both came at Triple Crown Series tournaments at the 2017 World Championship and 2019 UK Championship.
So far this season, O’Sullivan has reached ranking event finals at the Northern Ireland Open and Scottish Open tournaments, notably defeating Ding Junhui at the last eight stage of both tournaments, while the Chinese number one also reached the quarter-finals of the European Masters.
Who will claim the title? The action gets underway on Sunday 10 January – let us know who you think will win via social media!