Masters 2014: Tournament Preview

As is tradition, tomorrow will see the start of snooker’s first major of the year as the Masters gets underway in London, staged at the Alexandra Palace for the third time.

Click below for my thoughts ahead of the tournament and the usual links that you will need to keep up date with the goings on over the next nine days…

  • Click here to view the tournament draw
  • Click here to view tournament schedule
  • Click here to view the TV Schedules

While here at Pro Snooker Blog I often like to consider the various rankings implications and battles during the game’s professional tournaments, this week there will of course be none of that, as snooker’s biggest invitational event is played at the Masters.

Indeed, with a winner’s cheque of £200,000 on offer to the world’s top 15 ranked players, plus a certain four time former Masters champion who goes by the name of Ronnie O’Sullivan, all eyes will be on the prize this week.

Returning to the Alexandra Palace for a third successive year, the event would appear to have now found a new home, following five years at the cavernous Wembley Arena, which never quite captured the imagination of snooker fans in the same way that its predecessor the Conference Centre had.

While I will have not visited the ‘Ally Pally’ as it is often referred to, the reports have been positive during the past couple of years and those attending in 2013 were rewarded with one of the best tournaments of the season on the baize.

So who are the leading contenders this year and what clues does the draw offer as to who the winner might be?

The only fair place to start is with world number one Neil Robertson, who fresh from his UK Championship success in York recently, not least his many other successes during the past couple of seasons, has a valid claim to be the world’s best player at present.

Having taken his season tally of century breaks to a 65 at Crondon Park last week, already a record with five months of the season still to run, Robertson has now stated his aim for the coming years to be that of winning multiple majors and this tournament is as good a place as any for him to start.

Looking at his draw, while for me he is probably in slightly the better half of the two, he has been handed one of the toughest draws possible in his first match, with Northern Ireland’s Mark Allen set to be his opponent at the Masters for a fourth successive season. A quick glance at the form book shows that Robertson has won six of their last seven encounters in all competitions, but their matches have generally been close and I expect nothing different when they meet this Wednesday.

Elsewhere in this half of the draw, the other obvious name lurking is that of reigning world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, who will be looking to reach the final of this event for what would be an astonishing tenth time.

It is always difficult to predict how Ronnie will perform, but historically this has been a tournament that he has excelled in and a bizarre performance against Thepchaiya Un-Nooh before Christmas aside, he has generally impressed whenever he has been in action over the past couple of years.

In terms of his draw, while the likes of Barry Hawkins and Ricky Walden around him, with Robert Milkins up in the first round have all played some excellent snooker during the past 12 months, it is probably fair to say that it could have been worse for him and he will be favourite to progress to the last four this week.

Could we see a blockbuster tie between him and Robertson?

Turning to the top half of the draw, matters are somewhat less clear, with former champions Mark Selby, John Higgins and Ding Junhui all present, as well as Judd Trump, Shaun Murphy, Marco Fu, Stuart Bingham and Mark Davis, all capable of going on a run this week.

Like O’Sullivan, Mark Selby is a player who clearly enjoys playing in this event, having won it three times previously, as well as having finished as runner-up to the Rocket back in 2009. Indeed he speaks of his love for the event in his recent blog here, as well as his aims for 2014, headed of course by the desire to win the World Championship come May.

No doubt he will be among the leading contenders for this week’s title, although Mark Davis is of course much-improved in recent seasons and could cause Selby problems in what will be his third appearance in the event.

Beyond that, Selby could face John Higgins in the second round, Higgins looking to reverse a run of indifferent results, which a couple of notable exceptions aside, generally stretches back as far as his last world title success at the Crucible in 2011.

Whatever the reasons for it, be it a change of cue, motivation or otherwise, when people have asked me about Higgins in the past, I would always say that he can never be written off and I am not about to do so this week.

That said, he will have to be on his game from the start at the Alexandra Palace, as first round opponent Stuart Bingham should be confident following strong runs at the UK Championship and Champion of Champions tournaments and is actually the higher seed of the two with good reason.

Elsewhere, the second section of the draw is perhaps the toughest of all to call, as Judd Trump takes on Marco Fu, while Ding Junhui takes on Shaun Murphy.

Like Higgins, Judd had a largely tough year in 2013, but comes into 2014 looking to make a fresh start and with a new tip on his cue, there is no reason why he should not be able to get back to winning ways in the near future.

Opponent Marco Fu had an excellent year in 2013, reaching three ranking event finals, winning in Australia, but curiously has a distinctly poor head to head record against Trump, having lost six of their seven matches outside of the Championship League.

That said, having finished last season looking somewhat drained, losing to Mitchell Travis at the UK Championship and Judd himself at the Champion of Champions, I would expect the Christmas break to have done Marco good, giving us a closer encounter this time out in London.

As for Ding Junhui and Shaun Murphy, a week ago I would have made Ding a strong favourite to progress against an out of form Murphy, but while I still expect Ding to win, Shaun will be feeling better about his game following his 147 at the Championship League last week. A finalist here two years ago, Shaun will be hoping to rekindle memories of that run, as he looks to follow Neil Robertson by completing snooker’s triple crown.

No doubt that there will be shocks and hopefully the tournament will be one worthy of the quite extensive billing that it has been given during the past weeks and as ever, you will be able to follow all of the action both here at PSB and by following me on Twitter @prosnookerblog


SF: Selby def Ding, Robertson def O’Sullivan

F: Robertson def Selby