Paul Krishnamurty previews the elite Tour Championship, which begins today. Coverage is available throughout on Betfair Live Video...
"Lisowski has advanced massively and is long overdue a first title...He's reached three finals in three months."
The last event before the World Championship begins this afternoon as the top-eight players on the one year ranking list battle for a £380,000 prize fund at the Tour Championship. Even first round losers will take home £20,000, although earnings won't count towards the rankings until the semi-finals.
There's also a £100,000 prize on offer for the winner of the Cazoo Cup series - currently headed by John Higgins. For once there is no rankings sub-plot, as all eight are already sure of a Crucible place.
Will Trump fare better this time at Celtic Manor?
Arguably more significant is the change of venue, as players return to Celtic Manor. Many expressed dismay at the conditions when it hosted the Welsh Open, with Judd Trump notably off-colour.
That is about the only argument one could legitimately engineer against the world number one's claim. Trump was absolutely magnificent at the Gibraltar Open, producing snooker that was literally a class, several classes, above the next best standard that week.
It seemed almost a wounded reaction to a couple of defeats, which are of course inevitable given the number of tournaments. He is by far the likeliest winner of this event and the world title, but that obvious statement is reflected by odds of just 2/1 here and 1/5 to beat Barry Hawkins first up.
Hawkins is no pushover
Not exciting prices, in the strongest last-eight of the season, and against an opponent whom he has rarely been able to brush aside. Hawkins trails their head-to-head 4-6 after losing their last three encounters, but all required a deciding frame. He surrendered a 5-1 lead last time.
That really sums up Hawkins' career - top-class, but a nearly-man who struggles to get over the line. Since that gut-wrenching loss to Trump in the German Masters, he's surrendered a semi-final lead to Ronnie O'Sullivan.
Nevertheless that shows he can compete even against the best and, on his general form, an upset is not out of the question. I'm trying what amounts to an even money back to lay trade - taking 5.04/1 pre-match, then setting an order to lay back twice the stake at 2.56/4.
Higgins should be favourite against Ronnie
Before that, the action starts with snooker's version of 'El Clasico' - the third renewal this year. Rarely in their 28 years has supremacy between O'Sullivan and John Higgins seemed harder to measure.
The career head-to-head reads 34-30 to Ronnie but he was hammered in both recent encounters, in the Masters quarters and Players final, by an aggregate score of 16-6. Higgins hit six tons across the two matches, producing what he's described as the best snooker of his career.
That's quite a statement given everything he's achieved, and incredible given his generally lesser standard of recent years. I'm sceptical the Wizard of Wishaw can maintain it and take it to Trump but, make no mistake, his recent standard has been near-unbeatable.
Furthermore, while Ronnie has also played some unbeatable stuff of late, it hasn't come against his closest rivals. Weak performances against Trump, Mark Selby and Higgins in that Players final may suggest a lack of belief. I'm not convinced the market is right here. Back the outsider.
The head-to-heads in the two bottom half matches may surprise. Neil Robertson leads Jack Lisowski 4-0 and Mark Selby leads Kyren Wilson 6-0. The betting for both matches supports those numbers.
I do generally regard head-to-heads as a very meaningful stat, as it can reflect playing styles and mental blocks. However these are too extreme to take at face value.
Lisowski great value on recent form
In the two years since Lisowski lost 11-4 to Robertson in the China Open final, he's advanced massively and is long overdue a first title. 20/1 is a cracking outright price, especially given that he won't have to face his nemesis Trump until the final.
Whereas Jack has reached three finals in three months, Robertson has done nothing since winning the UK title. It is very possible that he's been saving his energy for the spring and the Crucible, where he has underachieved so many times, but I'd want a lot more evidence of peak form before taking 2/5 against an opponent of Lisowski's class.
Wilson slightly preferred
The final match has 'deciding frame' written all over it. I'd find it very hard to meaningfully separate Selby and Kyren Wilson's form over the past nine months and both are in my view better suited by long distance matches.
It is possible that Wilson has issues playing Selby, having thrown away a 4-0 lead in their previous meeting at the Champion of Champions.
Nevertheless, once again, the betting looks too one-sided. That is their only match in three years, though, during which time Kyren has improved considerably in all departments and become very consistent. 11/1 about him for the title, from the easier half of the draw, is fair value.
Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty
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