THE SHANGHAI MASTERS is a firmly established tournament in one of the world’s great cities and frequently produces excellent snooker.
First held in 2007, it was won last year by Stuart Bingham, who of course ended the season on top of the snooker world by triumphing at the Crucible.
So much for flat draws. This is the third ranking event in succession played under a tried and tested tiered format of qualifying, with those qualifiers to play the top 16 seeds at the venue.
Credit therefore goes to both David Grace and Jamie Cope who each came through four qualifying rounds to reach Shanghai, no mean feat considering the quality of the players lower down the list.
Cope, though, has been unlucky to draw one of eight local wildcards, unlucky because we all know how dangerous these players can be, particularly as they are not playing for their ranking position or, indeed, their livelihoods.
The wildcard issue aside, the format guarantees a stellar field and a manageable one too. There has perhaps never been a smaller gap between the quality of the top seeds and the qualifiers. There is scope for several upsets, but they wouldn’t be huge upsets because the qualifiers are so good.
Take Matthew Selt, perhaps the most improved player on the circuit when you look at his results this last year. He was a semi-finalist in the recent Six Reds World Championship. A victory over Ricky Walden would not be considered a giant shock.
Similarly Michael Holt, clearly already benefitting from an alliance with Terry Griffiths, has a good chance against Stephen Maguire, whose top 16 place is under threat.
Martin Gould, Aussie Open finalist this season, is a threat to world no.8 Barry Hawkins. Liang Wenbo, runner-up to Thepchaiya Un Nooh at the six reds, can certainly give John Higgins plenty of problems in Monday’s second televised match.
The picking and choosing of matches for television broadcast is something often hard to understand. It’s usually done by World Snooker after conference with the host broadcaster, in this case CCTV in China.
The first televised match is Graeme Dott v Ryan Day, an evenly matched contest between two very experienced players. But is it a better choice than Mark Allen v Luca Brecel, which is consigned to an outside table on Wednesday?
Everyone has their favourite players and the star names certainly should be showcased. You can’t please everybody but I understand World Snooker have changed their streaming partners and it will be interesting to see if this raises the possibility of webcam coverage of outside tables in the future.
As for Bingham, he is looking to give his season a kick-start after a couple of close defeats in recent tournaments. Ding Junhui has so far only played in the World Cup and six reds so may be rusty. Neil Robertson sat out the first two European Tour events to get some family time.
But these – and other – big hitters recognise that the Shanghai Masters is a major tournament and it would be a surprise if an established name didn’t come home with the trophy.
All of this is happening without Ronnie O’Sullivan, who is yet to return to playing action. He tweeted this week that he would not be at the Champion of Champions, a tournament he has won on each of its two stagings.
O’Sullivan, who won the Shanghai title in 2009, is developing his media career with his Eurosport series returning on Monday and other projects on the table. He obviously isn’t finished as a player but it makes sense for him to look to the future.
He has taken to his media roles with typical confidence and is a very natural presence on screen, but also keen to learn how to improve. Of course, most people would still rather watch him play, but we may be waiting a while yet outside of exhibitions.
Meanwhile, the Shanghai show goes on. Conditions, in particular humidity, may play their part but otherwise it’ll come down to the same simple equation as any other tournament: whoever plays the best will win.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.