Snooker Masters Betting: The stage is set for Selby
David Hendon previews snooker's premier invitational tournament - the Saga Insurance Masters.
Only three players have successfully defended the Wembley Masters title in the tournament's 34-year history but Mark Selby has the qualities it takes to become the fourth.
Selby became the first player in 19 years to win the game's top invitation title at his first attempt last season and demonstrated the various strengths of his game in doing so. He has turned into a master of brinkmanship and better than most at handling pressure, which he proved by beating Stephen Hendry, Stephen Maguire and Ken Doherty - all in deciding frame finishes - to reach the final.
And against Stephen Lee, he brought his attacking game to the fore and compiled four centuries to complete a thumping 10-3 victory. This is one area where he has improved dramatically. Three years ago he had made just under 30 centuries in seven seasons. Last week he became the 28th player in snooker history to have made 100 in professional competition.
This year, Selby stars his title defence against Mark King or Ricky Walden, who has been brought in as a wildcard following his capture of the Shanghai Masters last October. King surprisingly beat Selby in the first round of last season's World Championship but the Leicester man was a little jaded after a long campaign and I'd expect him to be much sharper if they meet again.
The Masters is generally won by a player already in form rather than by someone suddenly finding some. Only Cliff Thorburn, Hendry and the late Paul Hunter have mounted successful title defences at Wembley. Selby is in the Hunter mould: a genuinely nice guy who loves snooker, does not take life too seriously and takes both victory and defeat in his stride. With the memories of last year rekindled at Wembley Arena, he'll take some stopping and [8.2] seems to me quite generous.
It's about time Maguire made an impact on the Masters. The world no.2 has only won three matches at Wembley in four previous appearances and is becoming a frustrating player for punters to follow.
Everyone knows how good he is - he showed it in winning the Northern Ireland Trophy and China Open titles last season - but he sometimes goes flat for no apparent reason. However, the Scot should beat a struggling Graeme Dott in the opening round and I'd fancy him to pick off an inconsistent Hendry or Aussie Neil Robertson, who he's beaten six times in seven previous meetings.
Maguire, currently trading at [9.4] for the title, may have to play Ronnie O'Sullivan in the semi-finals but he beat him in the first round at Wembley last year and, in any case, there are signs that O'Sullivan has entered one of his mini-slumps that have often followed periods of success. He started the season by winning the Northern Ireland Trophy but his form in ranking events has been patchy since and The Rocket is no certainty to beat Joe Perry in the first round. Perry, after all, beat him 9-5 in the last 16 of the UK Championship last month.
In the first round, I'd pick recent UK Championship runner-up Marco Fu at [2.16] to beat John Higgins, Robertson at [1.7] to knock out Hendry and Ali Carter at [1.56] to get the better of Peter Ebdon, whose form seems to have completely disappeared.
Walden starts favourite to beat King in the wildcard round but he may not take to the Romford left-hander's tendency to make things scrappy and King may be worth supporting at [2.26]. The other match will most likely be a blizzard of breaks between two fiercely talented young prospects each making their debuts in the tournament. World no.16 Mark Allen beat 19-year-old Judd Trump 5-1 in this season's Bahrain Championship, but that result could easily be reversed in a contest that will come down to whoever gets in first in each frame.
There have only ever been two maximum breaks since the tournament began in 1975. Kirk Stevens - white suit and all - made one in 1984 and Ding Junhui polished off a 147 two years ago. The quality of the field of course means a max is a distinct possibility but there are far fewer matches at Wembley than in ranking events so I'm not sure [2.34] is a big enough price to be tempted.
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