The first major silverware of the new year will be contested for by most of the world’s best players.
Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Selby are among the stars in the draw for the 2021 Masters, with the action set to get under way on Sunday in Milton Keynes.
For the first time in the event’s illustrious history, play will not take place in the English capital city of London, which of course is due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
As recently as December it had been hoped that the players would be able to compete at the Alexandra Palace in front of a limited number of fans, but any realistic chance of that happening was quashed amid the rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the UK.
Instead, the Marshall Arena will host the competition, as it has done with every other tournament on the calendar so far this campaign.
On the eve of the tournament, world number one Judd Trump and fellow Englishman Jack Lisowski tested positive for coronavirus and unfortunately both of them, who were World Grand Prix finalists before Christmas, have been forced to withdraw.
Prize, History, and Format
An annual fixture on the schedule since 1975, the Masters is the second oldest Main Tour event.
As a result, it carries a huge amount of prestige that is magnified by its status as an invitational which grants participation to only those ranked inside the world’s top 16 on the official rankings list.
The roll of honour acts as a who’s who of the sport’s greatest protagonists, from its inaugural winner John Spencer to its most recent champion Stuart Bingham.
The likes of Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Jimmy White, Paul Hunter, Cliff Thorburn, and Alex Higgins have enjoyed Masters success too.
There are nine former champions in the 2021 Masters draw, with Ronnie O’Sullivan bidding to claim a record-extending eighth crown.
Sponsored by Betfred for the first time, this edition of the Masters boasts a prize fund of £725,000 and a champion’s cheque worth a quarter of a million pounds.
The Masters trophy is generally considered the biggest and most important to fight for other than the World Championship itself.
While there is considerable disappointment that the event cannot be staged at the Ally Pally, there is also the understanding that this is just the way it has to be at present.
Whether or not it will have any bearing on the outcome is hard to say, but the absence of the always boisterous London crowd will surely be a miss and could detract from what is predominantly an electrifying week of snooker.
2021 Masters Draw
Stuart Bingham is the defending champion following his unexpected success twelve months ago when he became the oldest winner in the tournament’s history with a 10-8 victory against Ali Carter.
The 44 year-old takes on Thepchaiya Un-Nooh in the first round, one of three cueists making a debut this year.
Yan Bingtao is another, with the Chinese number two in action against 2012 champion Neil Robertson.
The top half of the draw also includes Marks Selby and Williams, who boast five Masters wins between them and take on Stephen Maguire and Shaun Murphy respectively.
Ronnie O’Sullivan is on the other side of the draw, which has considerably opened up after Trump and Lisowski’s forced withdrawal.
Trump, the 2019 champion, was due to face the struggling David Gilbert but his place in the field will instead be taken by Joe Perry.
Lisowski was in line to challenge Kyren Wilson, but it’s Gary Wilson who will now have the opportunity as he makes his maiden bow in the competition.
O’Sullivan, meanwhile, encounters Ding Junhui in what is a repeat of the 2007 title decider while John Higgins, participating for a 27th year in a row, plays Mark Allen in the other first-round clash.
Last year, none of the top eight seeds managed to reach the semi-finals, underlining how tricky it is to predict.
Trump had been in relentless form this season and was an obvious favourite for glory, so it will be intriguing to see who can take advantage of his absence.
There could be serious arguments made in favour of a number of players, and it would be foolish to write off even the outsiders as Carter proved last year.
Last 16 Draw
Stuart Bingham (1) vs Thepchaiya Un-Nooh (16)
Shaun Murphy (8) vs Mark Williams (14)
Mark Selby (5) vs Stephen Maguire (9)
Neil Robertson (5) vs Yan Bingtao (12)
Joe Perry vs David Gilbert (13)
Kyren Wilson (6) vs Gary Wilson
John Higgins (7) vs Mark Allen (10)
Ronnie O’Sullivan (2) vs Ding Junhui (11)