Hector Nunns previews the williamhill.com UK Championship
The williamhill.com UK Championship always marks a hugely significant halfway staging post in the snooker season, and there are plenty of additional reasons to savour the enticing prospect of this year's renewal at York's famous Barbican Centre, writes Hector Nunns, Snooker Correspondent for The Times.
A new format sees 128 players including defending champion Mark Selby arriving in the city for an event extended by four days to allow two extra rounds to be played, with seven young amateurs also given their dream shot against some of the greatest names in the sport.
Ding Junhui, twice a UK winner, will have the opportunity to make it four major ranking tournaments win in succession in the same season after an incredible hot streak that saw him victorious at the Shanghai Masters, Indian Open and then International Championship events. If he could do it, China's No1 would match Stephen Hendry's run in the 1990-91 campaign.
There is also the return of reigning and five-time world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan to the tournament after a year's absence. It was the UK Championship, of course, that saw the Rocket announce himself on the big stage, beating Stephen Hendry 10-6 in the 1993 final to win his first ranking title at just 17 years of age. He has gone on to win this on three further occasions.
And world No1 Neil Robertson heads up an array of talent seeking to add the prestigious UK title to their CV. In the cases of John Higgins, Judd Trump, Shaun Murphy, Stephen Maguire, Mark Williams and Matthew Stevens, they have tasted that sweet success before. Hong Kong's Marco Fu, after a terrific calendar year, will be targeting a fourth ranking final in 2013.
The rolling jackpot for a maximum 147 break has reached its highest level - £55,000 - since switching to the system raising it by £5,000 for every ranking tournament one is not made. With an extra £4,000 on offer on top for the high-break prize, expect to see players go for glory and take the risk for such a big reward.
And the total prize fund for the williamhill.com UK Championship has risen to £700,000, with now £150,000 going to the winner - £25,000 more than Selby took home to Leicester 12 months ago. The 30-year-old admits last year's 10-6 final win over Shaun Murphy and the celebration that followed were special moments.
He said: "I can almost remember the party in the sports bar over the road the night after the final than the actual matches to win the trophy. It was a great opportunity to celebrate a really important title win with my wife Vikki and my close family and friends. I have to admit I do recall doing some Frank Sinatra on the karaoke.
"It meant a lot, though. I had won the Masters before of course, but in terms of the major ranking events this was a very big win for me last year, the world and the UK are the two big ones and to get one on the board was a monkey off my back and got me back to world No1.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself, it was my first UK final and I was thinking 'if I don't win it this time, I may never get as good a chance again like this'.
"Not only is the Barbican Centre a great venue but York is a lovely city to stay in in the run-up to Christmas. I always had good memories of the place and was pleased when it moved back.
"Top players always want to win a ranking title every season. Sometimes they don't, sometimes you can be lucky enough to win more than one. I haven't won one so far this season, so what better way to get one on the board than defending my UK title."
Hector's best bets:
First round accumulator: Advani (4-6), Wasley (10-11), Maflin (8-15), Woollaston (4-9), Lisowski (1-3), Burnett (2-5).
Winner - Neil Robertson 8-1 Quiet apart from his incredible century break strike-rate - 50 and counting this season, a record-breaking pace - Robertson could easily have won three or four titles this season rather than just the one. Aussie will not fear O'Sullivan if they meet in semis.
Tempting price - Shaun Murphy 28-1 Hard to know what is going on with Murphy at the moment, a former world champion and class act. A bit like Matt Prior's batting his loss of form is a total mystery. His price keeps going out, and maybe it is soon or never again for The Magician.
Outsider - Gary Wilson 200-1 The 28-year-old from Tyneside has been one of the best new players on tour, and it will be interesting to see how he performs on the bigger stage. Reached the last 16 of Indian Open, beating Australian Open winner Marco Fu.
Finalists: Ding Junhui v Neil Robertson 18-1, Ding Junhui v Ronnie O'Sullivan 12-1.