Lucky number seven
Neal Foulds tips John Higgins for a third Masters title, 14 years after his first and seven since his last.
Last Updated: 12/01/13 9:50am
Neil Robertson will be out to defend The Betfair Masters, which gets underway at Alexandra Palace this weekend - but he'll be facing some stiff competition.
The current world number five became the first Australian to win the prestigious tournament with a 10-6 victory over Shaun Murphy last year.
However, with world number one and two-time Masters winner Mark Selby fresh from his UK Championship triumph before Christmas, Judd Trump eager to improve on last year's semi-final defeat to Robertson and past Masters champions John Higgins, Ding Junhui, Mark Williams and Matthew Stevens in the field, the man from Down Under won't have it all his own way.
Here Neal Foulds gives his verdict on the main contenders and makes his prediction for the tournament...
You have to give Selby credit; he had a neck injury last season which it took him a while to get over and there was a definite dip in his form - but he showed tremendous persistence. Selby kept doing things his own way, got through his lean spell and in December secured the biggest win of his career at the UK Championship. He's won the Masters twice already and that UK victory leaves only the World Championships missing from his CV. If he could achieve snooker's Triple Crown then he really would be considered a major player in the history of the game. It's good to see him playing well again, though - and he showed he's still in form with victory in a PTC even in Germany last week. He's got Stuart Bingham first up in North London, who is someone you'd expect him to beat, and then he'll meet either Mark Williams or Matthew Stevens - who are both struggling for form - before a potential semi-final with Judd Trump. He's certainly one of the favourites.
Trump was knocked out in the first round of the UK Championship by Mark Joyce. It was seen as a shock by many but, as I suggested before that tournament, Trump's aggressive, attacking style does leave him vulnerable to upsets if the pots aren't going in and the same applies in this tournament. However, there aren't many shocks in the Masters. Yes, there are some names in the 16 who would be more surprising winners than others but it's usually a heavyweight who takes the title - and this is a tournament Trump will be determined to win. There are no ranking points available so, with the pressure off, players - even if they're not in form - can relax and play well. Trump reached the semi-finals last year and I reckon he will go well again. He's got a decent draw and should get past Barry Hawkins and his quarter-final opponent of either Stephen Maguire or Graeme Dott. The bottom half of the draw is tough to call but I reckon he'll make the final.
Murphy lost in the final of this tournament last year and also finished runner-up at the UK Championship in December. He's going to win something big soon - he hits the ball as well as ever - but I don't know why he doesn't win more often. Last year he had the chance to win this tournament which would have made him a winner of snooker's big three which, for someone who's only won four major tournaments, is some effort. He's certainly an underachiever. One thing that works against him is he isn't able to win when he's not playing at his best. Players such as Selby may have a bad day at the office but they can still find a way to win, but Murphy's open game gives his opponents chances because when he misses he lets someone in; when he has a bad day he's very vulnerable. That's my worry about him.
I think he's a top player. I watched him play in Munich this week and he played a lot quicker than usual. He lost 4-3 to Kurt Maflin but he's a leading player, holds the title and will want to win a back-to-back Masters. However, he's got a tough first round match against Ding Junhui. Ding's a former winner of the Masters in 2011 and is a sticky opening match for Robertson. If he can get through that then he's got a chance but it's very hard to defend titles - it's not something you see very often in snooker - and bearing that in mind, and the fact he's got Ding first up, I find reasons to oppose him.
Higgins is well drawn in the top half. First up for him is Ali Carter which isn't easy but you'd expect him to prevail and then he'll face either Shaun Murphy or Ricky Walden. He's been using a new cue this season and I'd say he's playing as well as ever. The Masters isn't one of his favourite tournaments - he's only won it twice, in 1999 and 2006 when he had epic final with Ronnie O'Sullivan. He's also lost finals in 1995 and 2005, but two wins from over 15 years playing at the Masters isn't a great return for a player of his class. So, he'll be determined to do well, and seven years after his last Masters win (which came seven years after his first) Higgins is my pick for the tournament. And if Trump goes well in the bottom half of the draw we could potentially see another final between those two. They've had some great clashes this season - Higgins' 10-9 Shanghai Masters final win which included a 147 stands out - and that would be a fascinating contest if they were to meet again next Sunday.