The non-ranking event gets under way on Sunday in Milton Keynes.
With the New Year reeled in, the Masters snooker seeds will be making the countdown to the first major event of 2021.
Usually contested for in the English capital city of London, this year’s edition will take the unprecedented step of instead being staged behind closed doors in Milton Keynes as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
As things stand, the action is set to begin on Sunday despite the introduction of the latest lockdown across the UK, and in the lead-up we’ll take a look at the contenders in the 2021 draw.
Today, let’s review the Masters seeds ranked from positions nine to 12.
12. Yan Bingtao (China)
The second of two seeds making their debuts in this year’s Masters, Yan Bingtao is also the youngest player to compete in the event since Judd Trump participated for the first time as a 19 year-old in 2009.
It is remarkable to think that Yan is still only 20, given how it feels like he’s been around for a very long time already.
Yan first turned professional in 2016 but made waves even earlier as a sensational winner of the 2015 World Cup for China alongside teenage partner Zhou Yuelong.
A year earlier, Yan triumphed in the IBSF World Amateur Championship to announce himself as a star for the future.
These days, many seem to criticise the youngster for not achieving more, but his progress has been steady.
Yan has quickly risen up the rankings list to move within the cusp of a place in the top ten, and maiden ranking silverware was accomplished in 2019 with his success in the Riga Masters.
There’s every chance that Yan will be challenging for the Paul Hunter Trophy on numerous occasions in the future.
Whether that materialises next week is another matter, and the Chinese competitor faces a very difficult opener in the form of one of the pre-tournament favourites, Neil Robertson.
11. Ding Junhui (China)
Ding Junhui is just about clinging onto his long-held position of being China’s number one in the world rankings pecking order.
Ding made his Masters debut all the way back in 2004 as a 16 year-old wildcard, and he has been an almost ever-present in the tournament since.
A champion in 2011, Ding also reached the final in 2007 and the semi-final in 2019.
Other than that, however, good performances have been hard to come by in this event for the 14-time ranking event winner.
Indeed, Ding has lost in the first round in eight out of his last 11 appearances – including a dismal five-year stretch between 2012 and 2016.
It has become impossible to make predictions with Ding; he undoubtedly remains one of the biggest talents in the game, but his results and performances on the baize too often suggest otherwise.
The 33 year-old can seemingly turn it on like a light switch, as was the case when he romped to a surprise glory in 2019 UK Championship, but those days have become fewer and farther between.
Ding faces record seven-time Masters champion Ronnie O’Sullivan in the last 16.
10. Mark Allen (Northern Ireland)
Having reached a career-high of number four in the rankings in 2020, Mark Allen has already slipped down the list to tenth.
The Northern Irishman’s ranking points from his victories in both the International Championship and Scottish Open of 2018 have been deducted from his rolling two-year tally.
Allen featured in a lot of ranking event semi-finals last season but this term has been more difficult for the Antrim man, failing to go beyond the last 16 of any ranking competition so far.
That said, the 34 year-old did triumph in the Champion of Champions a couple of months ago so will be attempting to make it a high-profile invitational double next week in Milton Keynes.
One of ten Masters seeds who understands what it takes to win the tournament, Allen entertains John Higgins in the first round.
The 2018 champion hasn’t won a Masters match since he etched his name onto the Waterford Crystal trophy three years ago, but he enjoys a respectable head-to-head record against Higgins and will fancy his chances against the Scot.
9. Stephen Maguire (Scotland)
Speaking of Scots, Stephen Maguire is the ninth seed for the 2021 Masters after rising back up the rankings following his Tour Championship success at Allen’s expense last summer.
The 39 year-old will be making his 15th appearance, and the Glaswegian has reached the semi-finals on four occasions.
Maguire remains a dangerous threat in any competition he enters, but whether he can string together a consistent level to overcome four top players on the bounce is always the obvious doubt.
Mark Selby will be the opponent on the opposite side of the table when the action gets under way, as formidable a prospect as there is in this year’s draw.
The duo has crossed paths in the Masters three times in the past, with victory each time for the “Jester from Leicester”.
Maguire threw a temper tantrum during an early Scottish Open defeat before Christmas, lambasting the continuous restrictive conditions in Milton Keynes.
Whether or not that will have an impact on his mindset, with the tournament now not being staged at the Ally Pally, remains to be seen.