Snooker’s big guns will be out in force for this year’s Masters (9-16 January) and for defending champion Yan Bingtao, snooker’s most prestigious invitational tournament provides the perfect opportunity to prove he is not a one-hit wonder.
Chinese star Bingtao stunned the snooker world last season by winning his maiden Masters title. He became the first Chinese player for a decade, since Ding Junhui beat Marco Fu in the 2011 final, to win the coveted crown. But the talented 21-year-old knows he will have to pull out all the stops if he is going to make a successful defence of his cherished title.
Only four players have ever defended their Masters title since the tournament’s inauguration back in 1975. Bingtao thwarted John Higgins last season in the Scot’s bid to land a hat-trick of Masters honours and what would have been his first Masters title-triumph since 2016.
His impressive 10-8 victory was the stuff of fairytales, bravely battling back from 5-3 and 7-5 down to triumph. But his stunning victory resonated all the more because he was the first debutant since Mark Selby, a three-time winner of the event, to win the title.
He also became the youngest winner – then aged 20 – of the event since Ronnie O’Sullivan’s maiden triumph in 1995.
This year Bingtao begins his defence against Welshman Mark Williams, a two-time Masters champion. The pair lock horns on the opening afternoon of the eight-day event, now back at its permanent home of London’s Alexandra Palace.
Last year the tournament was played at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes, a makeshift venue used for many of snooker’s tournaments as the sport navigated itself well through the coronavirus pandemic.
A healthy £250,000 cheque awaits this year’s eventual winner as the 16 best players in the world do battle at one of snooker's most famous spectacles. And there’s even £100,000 of cash up for grabs for the runner-up, no doubt one of the lures to the sport’s elite. But winning the famous trophy is what matters the most.
Crowd favourite O’Sullivan has won the most Masters titles in the history of the sport, seven if you’re counting. In 2017 the Rocket overhauled Stephen Hendry’s record of six titles. He has also been a runner-up on no fewer than six occasions, proving the event has given him plenty of joy and sorrow in almost equal measure.
Hendry, of course, famously won the event for an unprecedented five years in a row between 1989-1993, but no player has dominated to that degree ever since. This year O’Sullivan clashes with young gun Jack Lisowski, a UK Championship quarter-finalist earlier this season. It won’t be an easy test for O’Sullivan, but the new World Grand Prix champion has a habit of raising his game for his home event.
Last season’s beaten final Higgins faces a mouth-watering first round showdown with this year’s UK champion Zhao Xintong, the gifted 24-year-old Chinese potter. Four-time world champion Higgins has arguably been the player of the season, albeit he has lost all four of the finals he has competed in. Will it be fifth time lucky for the resilient Scot?
Potting sensation Judd Trump and Northern Ireland’s Mark Allen will lock horns in arguably the most intriguing opening tie. Trump has struggled to so far reproduce the stunning former which saw him yield a staggering five titles last season, but he showed glimpses of his imperious quality by winning the Champions of Champions crown in November.
Aussie ace Neil Robertson won the English Open this season and narrowly lost to O’Sullivan in the World Grand Prix final, so he’ll fancy his chances of success in London this week.
And with a packed field of talent including world champion Mark Selby, Shaun Murphy, Anthony McGill, Barry Hawkins, Stephen Maguire, Kyren Wilson, Stuart Bingham, expect plenty of fireworks this time around
The Masters will run from January 9 to 16 at Alexandra Palace in North London, with an elite field of 16 players battling for a title which was first contested in 1975.
Yan Bingtao v Mark Williams (1pm)
Neil Robertson v Anthony McGill (7pm)
John Higgins v Zhao Xintong (1pm)
Shaun Murphy v Barry Hawkins (7pm)
Ronnie O’Sullivan v Jack Lisowski (1pm)
Mark Selby v Stephen Maguire (7pm)
Judd Trump v Mark Allen (1pm)
Kyren Wilson v Stuart Bingham (7pm)
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