Big time snooker returns to the BBC this weekend as the world’s best compete for the prestigious UK Championship; the biggest competition of the season so far.
£170,000 going to the winner, this is one of the sport’s ‘Triple Crown’ events – the tournaments that fans and pundits often use to gauge a player’s greatness and overall standing in the sport.
The starting entry of 128 has already been cut in half following three days of First Round action at the Barbican Centre away from the TV cameras.
Top 16 stars Ding Junhui and Ali Carter perished, but all the other leading protagonists remain and will be looking to go deep over the next nine days in York.
Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Selby are the tournament favourites. The duo contested an enthralling final at this venue in 2016 and with both in different sides of the draw they could be on for yet another collision course come the climax.
Both have won major silverware this campaign and they are widely acknowledged as the top two cueists in the sport at this moment in time.
However, the strength, depth and sometimes unpredictability of the tour has been highlighted this season by the fact we have seen so many different winners and finalists. The 12 ‘traditional’ events played on the circuit so far have yielded 11 champions, with O’Sullivan the only multiple winner courtesy of his victories at the English Open and Shanghai Masters.
The history of the UK Championship, though, suggests that the well-known names come through. For example, this decade John Higgins, Judd Trump, Neil Robertson, Selby and O’Sullivan have exclusively taken the title. With a Best of 11 frames format up until the final, the top players appear more protected than a lot of the shorter race formats we see on the schedule nowadays.
Looking at the Last 64 draw, Selby looks likely to make the latter stages once again although tougher challenges could await him in the business end of the event. Elsewhere in the top half we see Champion of Champions winner Shaun Murphy, the evergreen John Higgins and Mark Williams, who returned to the winner’s step for the first time in nearly seven years last week at the Northern Ireland Open in Belfast. Exciting prospects Luca Brecel, Kyren Wilson and Yan Bingtao represent youth and valid potential threats later on in the week too.
5 time champion O’Sullivan heads up the bottom half of the draw along with World Number 2 and 2011 champion Judd Trump. Their stock looks even more impressive given Ding and Carter, now both eliminated, were in this section too.
2013 and 2015 victor Neil Robertson comes to York under tremendous pressure to retain his top 16 status and qualification for next month’s Masters at Alexandra Palace; the Australian last won a ranking event at the Riga Masters in the summer of 2016.
Mark Allen has been steady this term, in particular reaching the final of the International Championship in Daqing (losing to Selby), whilst Jack Lisowski has threatened to make his overdue breakthrough with a number of significant results and performances over the last few months.