It's early January,Christmas is a fading memory,The new year resolutions are probably just about holding,there is the slightest hint of a stretch in the evenings and the eyes of the Snooker world turn to London for the biggest invitational in the game.The Masters at The Alexandra Palace.
There may be no ranking points up for grabs this week but make no mistake,this is a title every player wants on their cv alongside the UK and World Championships.
This event will always have a unique place in the sports history and perhaps due to the fact that only the top 16 are invited many of the classic matches we all remember from the last 30 years occurred in this tournament, be it Davis rolling back the years to beat O'Sullivan,William beating Hendry on a respotted black or the three triumphs of the late great Paul Hunter. These matches and many others will live forever in snooker folklore and although it may no longer be held in the bearpit that was the Wembley Conference Centre there is still something special about the atmosphere this event generates.
So what can we expect this week? On the face of it,because the way the ranking now work we have a field consisting of the games top 16 on form no result can be a shock which makes predicting anything a dangerous game to play.However my new years resolution was to not sit on the fence so I will now try and predict the winner of each first round match.
Neil Robertson v Ding Junhui
The tournament gets off to a bang in this one with the defending champion Robertson taking on former winner Ding.This term both players have had similar seasons with some good results mixed in with some surprising defeats.Both will feel they haven't hit top gear yet and will be seeing this as the ideal way to launch them into the second half of the season.Taking all this into account I just have a feeling Ding might sneak this one.
Mark Allen v Mark Davis.
This could be another fascinating encounter.Allen has all the talent in the world but doesn't get to the business end of things as often as he should and Davis is having the time of his life in the autumn of his career and reached the semi finals of the UK championship in December.This is a tournament though that I have always felt is tailormade for Allen and I expect him to get through here.
John Higgins v Ali Carter
This one is a battle of the games in form players judging on the action in last week championship league. In group one Higgins looked in superb touch over the two days and beat Carter 3-1 in the final,Then in group two Carter kept up his form to take that one.That said Higgins really did look close to his best and although his record in this tournament is poor by his standards compared to other events he should be good enough to win this one and could go far this week.
Stephen Maguire v Graeme Dott
Here we have a battle of two Scotsman who probably wont ever make it on the poker circuit due to the fact that neither can ever conceal their emotions around the table. Both have struggled at times recently and although Dott did reach the final of the EPTC in Munich recently I think Maguire will come through this one.
Judd Trump v Barry Hawkins
The last time we saw Judd on our tv screens he was exiting the UK championship in the first round to Mark Joyce and and having decided to sit out the PTCs in Scotland and Munich he only returned to competitive action in this weeks championship league.Looking at the action there at times he gave the impression he hadn't lifted a cue since that defeat and he will have to up his game against a potentially tricky opponent.I still think Trump will have too much here though for the Australian Open winner Hawkins and expect him to win comfortably.
Shaun Murphy v Ricky Walden.
Murphy starts this week with the hopes that he can go one better then last year and join the select band who have won the games "Big 3" titles.His opponent Walden has already been in the winners circle this season winnng the Wuxi Classic but has seen his form drop in recent month's.With that in mind I expect a comfortable win for Murphy.
Mark Williams v Matthew Stevens
The battle of the Welsh veterans here and this may be the most difficult match to call.Both players are a bit in and out these days but when they are on it they can still produce top quality stuff. I have a feeling Stevens may just edge it but I couldn't be overly confident
Mark Selby v Stuart Bingham
Mark Selby had a rollercoaster 2012 with a serious neck injury threatening his career in the early part of the year before making a recovery to win the UK Championship and regain the World no.1 spot.He has already started 2013 with a win taking the PTC in Munich and despite the fact that Bingham is not an easy opponent fo anyone these days i expect Selby to win.
So there you have it,My head well and truly on the chopping block.We'll see jjust how wrong I have been as the action unfolds over the next few days