THE FIRST MATCH of this year’s Dafabet Masters will be the 600th in the event’s history. The 614th – the final – is once again likely to feature Ronnie O’Sullivan.
If ever a tournament chimed with one player, this is it. This is no PTC, no multi-table race against time to get all the matches played. At the Masters, every match feels like a final. Just for the elite, there is no hiding place.
O’Sullivan made an inauspicious start to his Masters career as an 18 year-old in 1994, losing as a wildcard, 5-1 to Dennis Taylor. He soon put this right, winning the title the following year, although it would be another decade until he won it again.
In the interim, he featured in some memorable finals in which he suffered rare reversals from a long way in front. He lost 10-8 from 8-4 up to Steve Davis in 1997 and 10-9 from 7-2 up to Paul Hunter in 2004.
More titles followed, though, in 2005, 2007, 2009 and again last year. O’Sullivan has thus won the Masters five times from ten finals. One more win and he equals Stephen Hendry’s all time record.
The Champion of Champions event resembles a mini-Masters and O’Sullivan successfully defended that title two months ago. Last month, he won a fifth UK Championship.
But he knows he will still have to produce the goods this coming week at Alexandra Palace because, if he doesn’t, there are plenty of other top players capable of taking advantage.
From the bottom half, Judd Trump is cueing superbly. 51 centuries this season attests to how well he is playing, though he is in a brutal quarter: Stephen Maguire to play Mark Selby or Shaun Murphy.
Ding Junhui has had a quiet season but will be favourite in the first round to beat Joe Perry, who is yet to win a match in the Masters in six appearances.
Neil Robertson, champion in 2012, is always a potent threat and Selby, though yet to challenge in a major event this campaign, has a great record in the Masters, winning three titles from five finals in seven appearances.
Ali Carter, his top 16 seeding frozen for the rest of the season, is sure to get a great reception when he walks out to play Barry Hawkins on Tuesday.
The Masters has something many tournaments do not: a history, a heritage. It also has a unique London atmosphere, often intimidating but reflecting the importance and status of the event.
The action is live on the BBC and Eurosport all week. Selby v Murphy kicks it all off at 1pm on Sunday.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.