Ronnie O’Sullivan will bid to become just the second player in history to win three successive Masters titles when the action gets underway at Alexandra Palace on Sunday.
The Rocket will seek to emulate Stephen Hendry, who won five on the trot from 1989-1993, and it is hard to find any reason to oppose the 12/5 tournament favourite.
This is O’Sullivan’s domain, in front of an adoring hometown crowd in London. He has reached a staggering 12 Masters finals, with last year’s 10-7 victory over Joe Perry pushing him clear of Hendry with seven wins.
O’Sullivan has made no secret of his disdain for the regular tournament set-up, where 128 players routinely rock up to play amid a multi-table layout. Here, the most naturally gifted player ever to play the game gets the stage he craves.
One table and the 16 best players in the world competing in the most prestigious non-ranking, invite only tournament that game has to offer. In his own words, this is a ‘numpty-free zone’. That is also why winning three in a row is so tough to achieve.
There are no easy games at The Masters and O’Sullivan faces a real challenge in his opener on Tuesday against Marco Fu. His form pre-Christmas was majestic, winning the Shanghai Masters and the English Open before his UK Championship win in York.
Steve Davis has suggested O’Sullivan is becoming the ‘ultimate player’ and that he may even be improving in his 40s, so it won’t come as a surprise if he is last man standing at Alexandra Palace, but it will not be straightforward.
Judd Trump has sparked this week in his Championship League outings in Coventry and is 6/1 for a maiden Masters crown, though he has lost in the opening round three times in four years.
World number one Mark Selby is 4/1 and a much more obvious threat. The Jester has three wins and two more finals under his belt and, like O’Sullivan, appears to feed off the Alexandra Palace buzz.
Like the Rocket, Selby has a test on his hands in the shape of Mark Williams in Sunday’s opening gambit.
At odds of 12/1, 2015 Masters champ Shaun Murphy is the value bet this time around.
The Magician has reached four finals already this season. He inflicted defeat on Sullivan 10-8 in the Champion of Champions decider in November (though that was avenged 10-5 in the UK final).
On best form, Murphy’s cueing is a match for any player in the game, as he showed when destroying Neil Robertson 10-2 to win this event three years ago. He’s got a winnable opener again Ali Carter and given his form this season, the 2005 world champion looks a credible threat for a second Ally Pally title.
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