All eyes will be on Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Northern Ireland Open; the second of four Home Nations events in the season.
‘The Rocket’ has been on a mission this campaign. Only yesterday he smashed Judd Trump 10-3 in the final of the Shanghai Masters to claim his 30th major ranking event title, putting him second in the all-time list of winners.
As well reaching the finals of lucrative invitational events at the Hong Kong Masters and the Champion of Champions in recent months, O’Sullivan has also just broken the career centuries 900 barrier, putting him further clear on top. The 1,000 mark is surely a case of when, not if.
Ronnie secured his 29th ranking title at the English Open during October. In the final he destroyed Kyren Wilson 9-2; a staggering performance that saw him miss just 6 balls all day.
That event was the first Home Nations tournament of the season. If you weren’t aware, there is a £1 million bonus for anyone who can win all four legs. Given the strength and depth of the tour nowadays, plus the short races early on in these competitions, this achievement is virtually impossible, but if people were to pick one player who could possibly do it, O’Sullivan would probably be the one.
In the past Ronnie has had a distaste for travelling to overseas events, but he has already made four trips to Asia in the last four months. He arrived in Shanghai just over 48 hours later after appearing in the Champion of Champions final in Coventry. He’ll have a similar turnaround for his trip to Belfast, but Ronnie these days is not only physically fit, but mentally fit and focused. He did it last week, why can’t he do it again? I don’t think fatigue will be an issue for him.
The five-time World Champion begins his bid on Tuesday night in the Round of 128 against professional rookie Lukas Kleckers of Germany on the TV Table.
Kleckers is just 21 years old, but he did dethrone then defending champion Neil Robertson at the Riga Masters in front of the cameras in the summer. However, since that significant victory, he has yet to win another match on the tour so far.
O’Sullivan’s task has, on paper, been made easier with the fact that World Number 1 Mark Selby elected not to enter. Alongside side John Higgins, O’Sullivan himself has stated these are his two biggest rivals at present. Scotland’s Higgins is in the same quarter, as is Anthony McGill and Wilson – these were three opponents O’Sullivan eliminated on route to the Steve Davis Trophy in Barnsley last month.
Elsewhere in the draw, there are plenty of players who are out to stop Ronnie’s Million Pound quest and pick up a £70,000 winners kitty of their own. Ryan Day, Neil Robertson, Luca Brecel, Michael White, Mark Williams, Judd Trump and Shaun Murphy – who have all won Singles events this season so far, are scheduled to be at the Waterfront Hall for another slice of success.
A special mention must go to Mark King, who proudly goes there as the reigning champion. After years of trying on the sport’s top tier, he finally became a ranking event winner 12 months ago after a very dramatic and emotional deciding frame victory against Barry Hawkins. King’s attempt at doubling up will begin when he crosses cues with maiden professional Matthew Bolton from Australia on Monday night.