Paul Krishnamurty previews Monday's matches from Alexandra Palace where he's backing a pair of former champions...
"Nobody has been more consistent than Higgins this season as he's reached four finals. There is no danger of him taking the youngster lightly."
The first round draw of this year's Masters is packed with tricky, hard-to-call matches and Monday's pair are no exception.
Higgins can gain revenge after UK loss
First up, a repeat of a match from the previous major that felt like a key moment in snooker history. In beating John Higgins 6-5, Zhao Xintong emerged as a title contender. Previously erratic and unreliable, by the end of the week he was the UK champion.
It is hard to know what quite to make of Zhao at this stage. Earlier this season, he'd lost to an amateur Paul Deaville and in four last-128 rounds. He has since, however, won a Championship League group. We always knew he was a major talent so, perhaps he really is ready to take his place among the elite.
Nevertheless, I cannot put him in the same class as Higgins yet. Nobody has been more consistent this season as he's reached four finals. There is no danger of him taking the youngster lightly. Far from it. I note that he's beaten Yan Bingtao all three times since losing last year's final to him.
That said, whilst Higgins is one of my four outright picks, I'm not prepared to have a big single bet at odds-on. Instead, lets put him in the daily double, to win the 2.5 Frame Handicap, and try a small interest on a 6-3 scoreline at the enhanced odds of 6/1.
Daily Double - Pays £9.00 for a £2 stake
Back John Higgins to win the 2.5 Frame Handicap @ 2.56/4
Back Shaun Murphy to beat Barry Hawkins @ 1.84/5
The evening match involves two players who have been well below their best this term. Barry Hawkins did play well in reaching the UK semis but that is the only time he's advanced beyond the last-32. Shaun Murphy has just one top-16 and one last eight appearance to his name, in addition to a couple of humiliating losses to amateur Si Jiahui and journeyman Fraser Patrick.
I've already nailed my colours to the mast here by selecting Murphy as an outright pick but, in truth, that was largely speculative based on odds of 42.041/1. Were he to recapture his best form, 'The Magician' is a likelier title contender.
Head-to-head record looks significant
The other critical factor is their head-to-head. Surprisingly, Murphy holds an overwhelming 11-3 lead. It should be noted, however, that Hawkins won their last two encounters in this major, in 2019 and 2017.
Again, Murphy doesn't fill me with enough confidence for a single bet so let's stick to the daily double and try the enhanced correct score option. Here, that is 6-4 at 15/2.
Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty
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