It is, perhaps, the second most prestigious prize in snooker. The world’s top 16 players – including Ronnie O’Sullivan, who sat out the UK Championship in December – will battle it out for the Masters crown at London’s Alexandra Palace.
It is the Rocket that takes his place as the bookmakers favourite at 7/2 despite enduring a nightmare 2015, and it will be interesting to see how the 40-year-old fares. He is so unpredictable that he remains one of the players punters loathe to back: sublime one day, ridiculous the next. The format of the tournament dictates that there are no ‘gimmies’ for players here – these are the top talents on the baize at the moment – and so O’Sullivan’s lack of activity on the circuit must surely count him out of the reckoning.
It has been a topsy-turvy season for many of the game’s leading lights, and that is why many of the world’s top 32 and beyond have prospered: the previously unheralded Kyren Wilson and Rory McLeod are ranking event winners this term.
And so there was something quite reassuring about Neil Robertson’s triumph in the UK Championship; the Aussie played some sublime snooker throughout the fortnight and fully deserved his win. He will surely take some stopping here, and at 9/2 is a pretty generous back.
Robertson will meet Marco Fu in a tasty first round clash, and while the Hong Kong native is more than capable the Aussie has beaten him on countless occasions in the past and should be comfortable enough once again.
The 33-year-old reached the final here last year – being blown away by Shaun Murphy 10-2 – but he is a previous Masters champ back in 2012 and so has the pedigree to get the job done.
Murphy himself is worth a look at 9/1, although some inconsistent showings at the UK Championship suggest some caution is required. Instead, take him at 5/4 to win quarter one as he faces competition from a scratchy Mark Allen, an out-of-sorts Barry Hawkins and an overmatched Joe Perry.
While Judd Trump has showcased some excellent form in the Championship League in recent times – winning Group 2 this week, he faces a tough opener here against Stephen Maguire; and if he can overcome the Scot then the ‘reward’ of an in-form Robertson awaits. This is one Trump that won’t be smelling of roses come next Sunday.
A litany of each way punters will like the look of Mark Selby at 9/1. The three-time champion played really well in York despite a barren 2015, and it took an inspired Robertson to depose the Jester from Leicester in the semi finals.
The downside? A potential second round date with O’Sullivan. It’s easy to promote Selby’s chances, just not as easy to part with our hard-earned. This is one bet where we WON’T be putting our money where our mouth is.
So, by a pretty cagey process of elimination, Robertson at 9/2 has to be the sensible bet for the title.
Our last punt of the tournament will be in the fourth quarter, where John Higgins – playing ‘some of the best snooker of my life’ in his own words – will meet surprise UK Championship finalist Liang Wenbo first up. The Chinese star played well but was fortunate that the format of the event enabled him an easy route to the finale. He looked very nervy at times at too, and that could well be exacerbated at an often raucous Ally Pally.
Higgins would then face either Ding Junhui or world champion Stuart Bingham in the last eight, who are both woefully out of form. So take him with some confidence to triumph in quarter four at 11/8.