The Masters has moved around old London town over the years, from the rowdy and huge old Wembley Conference Centre which is probably the one snooker venue in the world I really wish I had visited but didn’t, to the more corporate feel of the Wembley Arena, next door to the rebuilt and once iconic Wembley Stadium and now over to it’s new home, Alexandra Palace or ‘Ally Pally’ or ‘The People’s Palace’ or ‘The place where they play the darts that’s in the middle of bloody nowhere’, whichever you prefer. It was originally built in 1873, just after Steve Davis was born and burnt down 12 days later before being rebuilt 2 years later in 1875, see, even the Victorians were careless sometimes.
Every snooker fan will have a favourite Masters moment, for people of my generation it will be growing up with moments like Alex Higgins at the end of this match proclaiming proudly to the rapturous crowd and TV cameras that ‘we are fucking back’ after a deciding frame win against his great rival Steve Davis (it wasn’t even the final). Or perhaps the white-suited Canadian Kirk Stevens making a 147 against Jimmy White in a magical match which culminated in two shots from Jimmy the like of which nobody had ever seen before and had young potters like myself rushing to the nearest table to try and imitate, you can watch ‘that’ pink and black here.
The next generation will no doubt point to the dominance of Stephen Hendry that followed, at one point he won this five years on the spin and got to keep the trophy, my abiding memory of Hendry here is his unlikely comeback to beat Mike ‘has anyone got a rope?’ Hallett in the final on the same night that the hapless Hallett was getting his house burgled, not his greatest snooker memory I shouldn’t think. Since then however there have been a variety of winners, Steve Davis himself even managing to pick up a third title by beating Ronnie O’Sullivan in the final in 1997, a remarkable achievement in an event that he famously underachieved in during his dominant years, largely due to the hostility of the ever boisterous crowd toward his winning ways in the 80’s.
Inevitably during this period, Ronnie, MJW and John Higgins won a few titles between them, 8 in total with Ronnie having won it 4 times. But for most the face of the modern Masters is the late Paul Hunter with his 3 wins in 4 years between 2001 and 2004 and his famous ‘Plan B’ tale. This achievement is made all the more remarkable as each of his finals were won in a deciding frame, quite a marvellous treble from snookers sadly missed son. Someone has even taken the trouble to post the entire final session coverage of his final against Ronnie in 2004, the last time he won it, on You Tube and you can watch this to your heart’s content here.
More recently Mark Selby’s two finals against Ronnie capture the imagination for the rivalry that was forming between the two and last year saw the first Australian to lift the crown in Neil Robertson who attempts to become the first player since Hunter in 2002 to successfully defend this coveted title.
OK, that’s given the BBC enough material to be going on with, one of these days they will send a cheque through the post, or perhaps half their researcher’s salary, either will do (just a note that the opening bit about Steve Davis’s birthdate is a bit I might have made up, check with him first).
Now to the serious business, who is going to win it? Well, short of having a time machine and travelling ahead a week and a bit I defy anyone to give a totally confident answer to that question. To a larger extent than most events it’s complete guesswork, it always is with the Masters as it pits the best against the best, but this season it has the feel of being even more difficult than usual, the best we can do is look through the field, make an educated guess as to who might beat who and hopefully arrive at the end with a finalist and even more hopefully the eventual champion.
The thing is, usually you can whittle it down to 6 or 7 possible winners, I’d argue that this year there are 10 players that I’d say I could see lifting a Masters title from the 16 on show, 4 more that it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility and 2 others that, if they have an exceptional week, can do it. So that covers the 16-strong field.
If I don’t sound too confident, it’s because I’m not, but as ever we’ll give it a good go.
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I’ll be splitting this into quarters, covering all the first round matches and looking at the outright prices and anything that catches the eye. All the matches up to the final are the best of 11 frames so we are likely to see some quality over the course of the next week. Whether you have a bet or not, I hope you enjoy it, snooker always benefits from a memorable Masters.
1pm Sunday: Neil Robertson v Ding Junhui (Head to Head 2-1 excluding Premier League)
A real cracker to start things off between the last two Masters, Robbo and Ding. They last met over best of 11 at the UK in 2011 and it was Neil who ran out a comfortable 6-2 winner. Robbo was the victim of an unlikely comeback by Mark Selby in the UK and seeing him lose from 4-0 up was quite an experience and not one that I thought I’d ever see in a major event, he also suffered to a much lesser extent, a similar fate in the recent Munich PTC when being beaten 4-3 by Kurt Maflin from 3-0 up and coasting in the fourth, all very odd for a player as good from the front as our Robbo. Ding was last seen winning the Scottish PTC just before Xmas and is obviously beginning to find his form, he is more than capable of winning this event and getting his trophy back. I have to say coming into this preview I had this down as a very tough call but now I’m concentrating on it something is telling me that Robertson will start with a win, I can’t see the match in Munich affecting him at all and he has been playing well all season, it has to be the Aussie for me, I hope it lives up to the billing.
Selection: Robertson 6-4.
7pm Sunday: Mark Allen v Dark Mavis (Head to Head 1-0)
Next up, many people’s idea of a live outsider Mark Allen, who was sent home in Round 1 in this last year by eventual winner Robertson. Before he gets the chance at a possible rematch he has to face possibly the most improved player of the season Dark Mavis, who proved by his run in the UK all the way to the semi-finals that he’s now capable of going deep in the majors. With the exception of an EPTC win Allen has had a quiet season so far and on current form he could easily be opposed here. But he generally turns it on at least once in a biggie before the World Championship and I think this might be a decent week for him. On balance I’d have to side with him to win this one and if he does, I’d quite fancy him to progress to the semi-finals.
Selection: Allen 6-3.
Selected Quarter Winner: Mark Allen.
Recommended Bet: 1 point each way on Mark Allen to win the Masters at 14/1 generally.
7pm Tuesday: Shaun Murphy v Ricky Walden (Head to Head 6-1)
Shaun Murphy proved he was right back on song, probably a Celine Dion song, by making the final of the UK Championship and playing some great stuff to get there, most notably a run of 4 frames against Ali Carter in the semi-finals to come back and win that had to be seen to be believed, for me the best he’s played on TV in years. He faces Ricky Walden who he has beaten 6 times out of 7, but who he lost to in their biggest match up at the UK a season ago. Ricky started the season very well and won the Wuxi Classic, albeit in a slightly depleted field, but since then our Rick has been a bit in and out and we haven’t really seen him anywhere near his best for a few months now, perhaps he is suffering a mid-season lull just as his fellow top 16 players are beginning to peak. Shaun will be confident of a winning start to his campaign and I’d have him as one of the better match bets of the first round on current form, in fact looking at all the matches i’d say if you are going to back only one winner in the first round, it should be Murphy.
Selection: Murphy 6-2.
1pm Monday: John Higgins v Ali Carter (Head to Head 7-2 excluding Premier League)
Then comes a real toughie, John Higgins and Ali Carter, who coincidentally won the first two groups of the Championship League in Essex this week, so for one at least the dreaded ‘curse of Crondon’ will be lifted. For me, Higgins was a hasty pink away from possibly winning the UK Championship, he missed a seemingly unmissable ball after looking faultless against Mavis to come back in York and I have no doubt had he come through that match he’d have run Selby very close to lifting the trophy the way he was playing. But he’s not the best starter to tournaments is John and he has said before that this is an event that he rarely produces his best in. I did have a slight feeling about Ali’s chances this week and he has been playing very well lately and seems very comfortable with his game, but looking again in the cold light of day and with Higgins available at 7/1 to win the whole thing, I’d be silly not to reconsider. If Higgins rediscovers the kind of form he was showing until he missed that pink, that price could look massive even after this match, that said, if he loses, I’ll probably back Ali, in fact, at the prices the sensible thing to do is to back him now so it’s time to hedge a bit with trace of insurance.
Selection: Higgins 6-4.
Selected Quarter Winner: John Higgins.
Recommended Bet: 2 points on John Higgins to win the Masters at 7/1 and 1 point each way on Ali Carter to win the Masters at 20/1, both with Corals*
*If Judd Trump wins the Masters, all outright stakes are refunded on all bets under £200 at Corals.
7pm Wednesday: Mark Selby v Stuart Bingham (Head to Head 7-5 excluding Premier League)
For some, this may represent the easiest quarter to predict, Mark Selby fresh from his UK Championship win and even fresher from his follow-up win in Munich comes here as many people’s favourite for the title, and why not? He’s reclaimed the world number one spot from Judd Trump who he lent it to for a fortnight and he’s playing hard matchplay and most importantly of all, winning snooker. It might not always be great to watch, but it’s certainly effective. He faces Stuart Bingham who is more than capable of causing an upset and indeed beat Selby in a decider in their most recent full ranking event meeting in Wuxi. Fans of the Premier League will also point to his demolition job on the Jester in that back in October on his way to his big payday, make no mistake, this is no easy opener for Selby. But his form coming into this is better than anyone else and I fancy him to scrap a win as only he can. He’d be my main outright pick at the odds, ok, it’s very rare that a player wins three events on the spin, it’s also rare that a player wins three Masters titles in a career when they haven’t been a World Champion, but Selby is the man in form and for me only Higgins at his best can stop him from doing just that.
Selection: Selby 6-4.
1.30pm Wednesday: Mark Williams v Matthew Stevens (Head to Head 9-5 excluding Premier League)
Then comes an old rivalry between the Welsh boys, both currently struggling for a bit of form, most notably MJW who sadly looked very much off his game in the UK when losing to Mark King. Matthew has been little better all season and although he did have a half-decent UK he still didn’t play anywhere near as well as he did at the Crucible last season when he lost to Ronnie in the semi-finals, but all this proves that he raises his game for the main events as he always has. Interestingly, and this does include a Premier League match in 2009, MJW has won five of their last six meetings by the scorelines of 4-0, 3-0, 5-0, 4-1 and 5-1, but these have been spread over time and I shouldn’t think that Matthew will believe that his old mucker has any sort of hoodoo over him. Anyway, for me I can’t see either of these two winning the Masters on current form and I really hope they both start improving soon before this becomes a bit of a write off season for them, they are obviously both class acts on their day. In terms of who will win here, just going on the past stats and the fact that it’s a comfortable draw for him I’d have to say MJW, I can’t see him playing that badly again and he seemed determined to put it right after the UK from what I see, rumours of his demise may be premature but I can’t realistically see either getting past Selby in the next round if he beats Stuart.
Selection: Williams 6-5.
Selected Quarter Winner: Mark Selby
Recommended Bet: 3 points on Mark Selby to win the Masters at 7/1 with William Hills.
7pm Monday: Stephen Maguire v Graeme Dott (Head to Head 4-4)
In the last quarter we had the all Welsh clash and this time it’s the turn of the other two Scotsmen in the event to battle it out. Graeme Dott’s form is very unpredictable these days, the terrier can look more like a harmless pug at times and has not enjoyed great form in the last two major UK events, at the Crucible he was inexplicably bad and in York he was only slightly better when losing to Shaun Murphy, but he shot back to form with a final appearance in Munich last week of course so tha should give him at least a bit of confidence. He faces the Master Cuebanger Maguire who on his day can beat anyone in the world, his record against Dotty in recent times isn’t that good but overall the two’s head to head stats prove how evenly matched they are. I actually think this could be one of the matches of the round and wouldn’t bet against it going the distance, you know what? I think Dott might just edge it.
Selection: Dott 6-5.
1pm Tuesday: Judd Trump v Barry Hawkins (Head to Head 1-1)
The tournament favourite Judd Trump will be looking to make amends for what can be defined quite fairly as a careless defence of his UK title. He had the match against Mark Joyce won and then decided to start acting like an feckless amateur and treating his opponent with all the respect of something he had just wiped off his shoe, this is harsh, but on that occasion Judd got what he deserved and he should learn a lesson from it, though it remains strange that a player as successful as him should need to be reminded of the importance of keeping your eye on the ball. He faces what you could easily be forgiven for thinking is the ‘easiest’ draw of the big guns in Australian Open Champion Barry Hawkins. As I write this Barry hasn’t yet played his qualifying match for the China Open so assuming that all goes to plan he can come here in decent spirits to give it a good go. It would be a shock if Judd lost, but not a major one and I’m sure Judd will not treat Barry in the same way as he did Mark as he knows how dangerous he is. I think Judd will make amends for the poor UK result here and progress to the semi-finals, but that’s where I think he might lose to Selby.
Selection: Trump 6-3
Selected Quarter Winner: Trump
Recommended Match Bets: 3 point acca on Robertson, Murphy, Selby and Trump pays over 4/1 at Apollobet. Add Allen for a 2 point acca pays over 13/2 at the same firm.
Recommended Other Bets: 2 points on ‘Will there be a 147 break?’ Yes at 7/2 with Boylesports. 1 point on the final being between Selby and Higgins at 16/1 with Ladbrokes.
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