All the talk in snooker at the moment is for faster formats, fewer frames and quicker matches but the UK Championship, with its two session contests, will provide a significant test. It is for this reason that, since its first staging in 1977, it has produced so few shock winners, and the 2010 event seems likely to end in victory for one of the usual suspects.
Last season I tipped Ding Junhui, who duly did the business. This season I'm tempted by Shaun Murphy, the champion two years ago and always a dangerman, even though his lack of consistency sometimes lets him down. This was evident in the Premier League last weekend. Having played superbly to beat Marco Fu in the semi-finals, his game went to pieces in the final and he was hammered by Ronnie O'Sullivan.
Murphy, though, has had a good season so far. He finished top of the order of merit for the new Players Tour Championship, a new series of largely under-the-radar tournaments that have kept players sharp. He is unlikely to encounter too much resistance in the opening round in Telford from Northern Ireland's Patrick Wallace, who has played on television only rarely, since his surprise run to the quarter-finals of the 2001 World Championship.
Having gone through a difficult divorce, Murphy is now nicely settled in Lancashire with a new girlfriend and solid set of mates. As one of only ten players to do the world and UK double it's clear he relishes the major events. He finds himself in the same quarter as world champion Neil Robertson. The Aussie is world champion and world no.1, a status he underlined by winning the last ranking title, the World Open, but his record in the UK Championship is nothing to write home about, with a quarter-final appearance in 2005 his best performance in the game's second biggest tournament. Murphy represents better value at 12.0 for the title.
Another player worth supporting is Mark Williams, the UK champion in 1999 and 2002 and back playing the sort of snooker that got him to top spot in the world rankings a decade ago. Williams landed the China Open title last season - his first major trophy for four years - and he is back in the top eight. He should come through against Mark Davis, a much improved player in the last year but still not as good on TV as he is in the qualifiers, and Williams would also be favourite against Stephen Hendry or Jimmy White in the last 16.
After his victory in the Premier League last weekend many can't see past O'Sullivan, but I would offer a few words of caution before parting with any cash. O'Sullivan himself admitted that the longer format of the UK Championship is "a different ball game" to the shorter format of the Premier League, which is played as a series of one night stands. Two session "best of seventeens" over nine days is not the preferred formula for a player who struggles with boredom at the best of times. Plus, unlike in the league there's no shot clock, which clearly favours the instinctive genius that is the Rocket.
That's not to say he can't win the title - he's done so four times before - but I'm not sure the Premier League has any bearing on what will happen in Telford. The good news for O'Sullivan fans is that he is in a genuinely good frame of mind following the recent release from jail of his father, Ronnie senior. How long this will last, though, is anyone's guess.
His match against Stuart Bingham looks like one of four first round bankers, along with Murphy to beat Wallace, Robertson to beat Rory McLeod and Ali Carter to overcome Mark Joyce, who won four qualifying matches but who has only a handful of TV appearances under his belt. Put these together in a Betfair Multiple when the individual match markets go up.
Top 16 seeds who look vulnerable include Graeme Dott, who faces the much-improved Martin Gould, a player with a deadpan expression but a deadly attacking playing style. Tom Ford failed to beat Mark Allen on his Crucible debut in last season's World Championship but may fair better this time round, particularly as their match is not on TV.
And what of Hendry v White? One of modern snooker's greatest rivalries returns some 24 years after they first played as professionals. Hendry has of course dished out plenty of misery for White and his vast army of supporters down the years, including four world final defeats, but comes into this match mired in a scramble to keep his elite top 16 place and avoid future trips to the qualifiers. It would be a delicious irony if it was White who condemned him to this fate, and it's a real possibility given the Whirlwind's recent form. He played superbly to qualify and is finally a world champion in his own right, having just won the revived World Seniors Championship. White won their last meeting in a ranking event at the 2004 European Open but Hendry leads 33-18 in their personal head to head.
By David Hendon
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