The Betway UK Championship winner is playing better snooker than anyone else, including tournament favourite Ronnie O'Sullivan
There will be fewer foam fingers pointed and less pints of Foster’s glugged than at the recent PDC World Darts Championship, but the superb sport at Alexandra Palace continues this week with the start of Masters snooker.
From Sunday, the game’s top 16 players will compete at the iconic London venue for the second Triple Crown event of the season.
But rather than Ronnie O’Sullivan, it is the winner of the last month’s Betway UK Championship who is the obvious pick to triumph.
That is Neil Robertson, whose victory at the York Barbican – and at the Champions of Champions just weeks before – emphasised that no player in the world is playing better than he is.
At the UK, Robertson navigated the most difficult draw of any player – including fellow Triple Crown winners John Higgins and Mark Selby – with elegance, and provided the tournament’s most thrilling moment by making a maximum break in the final.
And beyond reaffirming his status as one of snooker’s all-time great players, Robertson has another motive to win what would be his second Masters title and first since 2012.
The 33-year-old seemed certain to do so 12 months ago after dismantling O’Sullivan 6-1 in the last four, only to be humbled 10-2 by Shaun Murphyin the final.
Robertson revealed in York last month that his emphatic semi-final win over the Rocket had affected him and he will be minded to put that right this year.
The 40-year-old, whose participation in the German Masters qualifying before Christmas – where he was beaten in the second round by Stuart Carrington – and this week’s Championship League are his only competitive appearances since losing in the World Championship quarter-final to Stuart Bingham in April.
That loss – plus the one to Robertson in this tournament three months earlier – indicate his days of sporadically rocking up to tournaments and winning them at a canter are probably over.
As the most gifted snooker player ever, though, O’Sullivan is obviously capable of triumphing, especially if his scoring at this week’s internet-streamed event – he made five centuries in seven best-of-five-frame matches – continues in front of the BBC cameras.
The man from Essex will, of course, receive partisan and raucous support from the Ally Pally crowd, while it is also worth remembering that his five victories at the tournament is a record only bettered by Stephen Hendry’s six.
In our exclusive interview with him last month, O’Sullivan said he expected his competitive return to be “tough because the standard is so high now” and there are certainly multiple contenders for the Masters.
Defending champion Murphy became the Triple Crown club’s latest entrant with victory last year and is 8/1 to retain his title.
That hasn’t been done since the late Paul Hunter in 2002, however, while his surprising fourth-round loss to Marco Fu in York demonstrated that the ultra-attacking player is not the best at winning frames ugly.
Mark Selby is, however, and the world No. 1 is 7/1 to win what would be his first event since the China Open in April and, more significantly, the fourth Masters title of his career, having previously done so in 2008, 2010 and 2013.
John Higgins is another multiple winner (1999 and 2006) and, after Robertson, has been the best player in the sport so far this season.
Higgins has already won two ranking titles – the Australian Goldfields Open and the International Championship – and was the only player at the UK to threaten Robertson, eventually losing a final-frame decider in the fourth round.
The Scot is tempting at 12/1, but so his first-round opponent Liang Wenbo – the gifted and affable Chinese who memorably reached the final in York.
When the Masters draw was made at that tournament, the 28-year-old comically put his head in his hands upon learning he would face Higgins, but 66/1 is generous for a player who was only denied his first Triple Crown win by Robertson.
But a second in succession – and fifth of his career – is likely for the Australian.