Who are we tipping for Masters glory?

Jan 5

Roll up, roll up. The new year is only but a few days old and it’s straight into one of snooker’s most prestigious and glorious events to kickstart 2024.

Since 1975, the world’s finest players have been battling it out at the Masters – an invitation event steeped in fine history and now well-established as the most sought-after title in our sport behind the World Championship.

This event never disappoints and with the top 16 in the world back at Alexandra Palace – a venue we’ve been venturing to for more than a decade – it’s showtime in front of a sell-out London crowd who always deliver when it comes to producing a buoyant atmosphere.

To get you in the mood for eight days of captivating snooker starting on Sunday, here’s our look at each first-round match and Snooker System’s prediction for who will lift the title.

Judd Trump v Kyren Wilson

When the draw for the event was made, the crowd at the Barbican in York let out all the oohs and aahs you’d expect from a potential match of the round.

Not long ago this pairing was being widely dubbed as the emerging big rivalry in the game. It still is in many ways but right now these two seem quite a way apart in how they’re playing.

Judd has won three titles this year and reached two further finals, coming here as defending champion and one of the hot favourites. Kyren on the other hand hasn’t produced anywhere near his best this season and will be absent from the upcoming World Grand Prix owing to not being among the top 32 on the one-year ranking list.

Kyren though has taken many notable scalps against Judd and is
not overawed by him. Most famously at Alexandra Palace, Wilson battled back to beat him in a decider to reach the final in 2018.

Form is too strong to ignore in this one. Judd to run a relatively comfortable winner and make it three consecutive wins against Kyren in the Masters in the past five seasons.

Mark Williams v Ali Carter

Two experienced campaigners do battle in this one but when it comes to character, they could hardly be more different. While Williams is arguably the most laid-back man in Britain – let alone just snooker – Carter wears his heart on his sleeve and looks like he could blow up at any moment.

When trying to decide who will come out on top, recent Masters form points towards the Welshman. Williams played snooker from the gods here a year ago although ended up a beaten finalist. The year before, he reached the last four and would have been in another final was it not for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when against Neil Robertson, who needed snookers in their deciding frame. He seems to be knocking on the door of winning this one for the first time since 2003.

Carter on the other hand is making his first appearance at the Masters in four years. In his last visit, he did of course make the final but was only there on merit of replacing Ronnie O’Sullivan who withdrew from the tournament.

Verdict: Williams will be the popular pick for many in this one, but Carter gets our nod. There's always a few surprises in this event, so why not here.

Mark Selby v Robert Milkins

Milkins’ long-awaited return to Alexandra Palace is double that of Carter. It has been eight years since he played in this event and he’s back to a face a titan of the sport in Selby who has won here three times, although all of those victories came in his first six appearances.

It’s actually been 10 years since he last made the final.

What they do have in common is that they’ll both look back on their seasons and think there will be more to come. Milkins is struggling a little on the one-year ranking list and while Selby has been consistent with a handful of deep runs including reaching the final of the British Open, he is very much in the business of lifting titles.

This feels like a close one.

Milkins has never won a match at the Masters albeit he’s only played in it twice before. Selby has lost in the first round here four times in the past six years, but something has got to give. This one will go close. Selby to shade it.

Mark Allen v John Higgins

Sorry everyone but this contest feels like another instance where it’s probably easier to make a case for why each of them are unlikely to win this one rather than why they will.

Higgins notoriously doesn’t produce his best at the Masters. His last win at the tournament was almost 20 years ago way back in 2006 and he’s only made the semi-finals at Alexandra Palace twice – never the final.

Saying that, Allen has lost in the first round five years on the spin after winning the event back in 2018.

Allen has won two trophies this season – the Champion of Champions invitation event and the Shoot Out. Higgins is without a title but shades things on consistency with three ranking event semi-finals so far in this campaign.

Verdict: A real coin flip this one and we are siding with Allen because surely his record of first round losses has to end sometime. It might come down to who has put more work in on the practice table over the Christmas break; we suspect that might be Mark, but we have no scientific basis for this. It’s just a hunch.

Ronnie O’Sullivan v Ding Junhui

It only seems like yesterday we were watching these two fight it out live on the BBC. Well, that’s probably because it was just over a month ago that they were facing off in an epic UK Championship final.

The Rocket got the job done there and with it wrapped up a record-extending eighth UK title. He’s also the record tournament winner at the Masters on seven titles and has reached the final a staggering 13 times in all. His pedigree speaks for itself.

Ding showed plenty of signs that he could be back to somewhere near his best in York and as a result has some momentum to count on in this one. Neither profess to really loving this venue. Ding has never reached a final at Alexandra Palace and Ronnie hints the pressure of a home crowd takes its toll, but he did win back-to-back titles here in 2016 and 2017. Time for another one?

Ronnie has only ever lost in the first round at the Masters three times, having been battling out at this event for more than three decades now. We think he’ll get the job done and maybe it’ll inspire him to go all the way.

Neil Robertson v Barry Hawkins

This is a re-run of the final here two years ago. Robertson ran out an easy winner back then, but the landscape feels very different this time around.

Hawkins holds all the cards when it comes to form. He started the season with a ranking title win at the European Masters and has backed this up with some trademark consistency. He’s reached two Masters finals in the Alexandra Palace era and continues to knock at the door of a major win.

Robertson has been there and done it when it comes to winning the big titles, included two Masters titles on his CV. However, he’s had a howler of a campaign so far and is facing the prospect of having to qualify for the World Championship.

Looking to turn around his fortunes, he is just back from a trip to his Australian homeland, hoping a break from the baize will perk up his game. He’s a man for the big stage and this feels like a clean slate for him as he looks to get back on track.

Throwing the form book out of the window, we’re going for Robertson simply because it seems inevitable that he will have to burst back into life at some stage – why not here?

Shaun Murphy v Zhang Anda

This contest really does threaten to be one you cannot afford to miss.

Zhang is the most unexpected player at this year’s Masters. He was a country mile away from the top 16 at the start of the season but has completely transformed his game. He won his first ever ranking title at the International Championship shortly after reaching his first ever final at the English Open. His performances have been outstanding, and he looks an established top player in waiting rather than just a flash in the pan.

In the other corner is an established top player in Murphy. He’s still waiting to find his rhythm this season but of course famously saved his best for the second half of the campaign last time, and can easily do so again.

Verdict: Murphy is one of the great showmen in the sport and our gut instinct says he may handle the Ally Pally atmosphere that bit better.

Luca Brecel v Jack Lisowski

Although this tie is nestled at the bottom of the drawsheet, it’ll be the tournament curtain raiser come Sunday afternoon – and it really should live up to the billing.

There’s a lot to like about this match. These are two players who are very easy on the eye and if they both hit it off, we could be in for a classic. It’s a big ‘if’ though, let’s be honest.

Brecel is of course back on the BBC as the reigning world champion but has not managed to conjure up any of the old magic we saw in Sheffield so far this season. We know he’s a player for the big stage though and this venue is one hell of a stage. Could this be the match to get his juices flowing?

Jack has had a better season than Brecel. He’s enjoyed a run to the quarter-finals of the British Open and semi-finals of the Northern Ireland but has not produced his best either.

Despite not yet being a title winner, this is his sixth straight season qualifying for the Masters as a top-16 player, so he is clearly doing something right.

This is a match to sit back and enjoy but we have no idea what’s going to happen.

We hope we’re not repeating ourselves but this is probably the hardest match to have a strong feeling either way. Looking at this quarter of the draw though, this does feel like an opportunity for one of these players to go deep. Left-field shout but could one of them get on a run after winning the first match and become a first-time finalist this year?

Only three players have ever successfully defended the Masters title. Stephen Hendry, Paul Hunter and Ronnie O’Sullivan. What a list of greats that is. Our tip is for Judd Trump to join that illustrious crowd. Say what you like about Judd but he has habit of doing marvellous things in snooker. This could be the next one. If he were to do it, it would also be a third Masters title in his past five appearances at Alexandra Palace. A win would be quite fitting because he does seem to enjoy the glitzy side of the game which this venue has become renowned for.
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