Trump the man to beat
Selby fancied for a good run
Vafaei rates cracking each-way value
The first major of the snooker season, also the first leg of the 'Triple Crown' enters its final stages tomorrow, with 32 qualifiers going on to the Barbican Centre in York.
In a change from recent renewals, the top-16 seeds were guaranteed this place, with the rest battling out four qualifying rounds earlier this week in Leicester, culminating in 'Judgement Day', as seen before the World Championship.
Trump showing best form for three years
There is no question regarding whom the player of the season has been so far. Judd Trump has won three titles and lost two finals, and looks close to the career-best levels seen during 2019-20. Nonetheless, his relative under-achievement in majors, especially this one, remains a concern.
Trump hasn't won this title since 2011, and has only reached two finals since, despite being at the top of the game throughout that entire period. His tally of four majors, compared to 21 for Ronnie O'Sullivan, remains the sole gap on Judd's CV.
As the publicity around 'The Edge of Everything' demonstrates, Ronnie remains the game's one true star. A strong bid for an eighth UK crown will drive even more interest and coverage than usual. The Rocket is, however, less prolific nowadays, winning only once this season and twice in small invitationals last term.
New format to favour the qualifiers?
Indeed, the game is more wide-open right now than for many a year. Several top players are well below their best. The last ranking event final was fought between outsiders Zhang Anda and Tom Ford.
I think the new format could have a significant effect. We've seen at the World Championships how qualifiers arrive fighting fit and match ready, but the third week of long matches proves too much. That won't be the case here with matches over just best-of-11 until the final. Expect plenty of upsets.
Saengkham can go well at big odds
Take the match between Tom Ford and Noppon Saengkham. Having reached the International final, and won their encounter at the last-48 of this event last year, Ford is entitled to start favourite. However with two decent wins under his belt this week, I'm more inclined towards the Thai.
Noppon has demonstrated at the Crucible that he has the temperament to rise to the occasion of a major. Coming through this section is a tough ask, but possible.
The one to beat is defending champion and facile Champion of Champions winner Mark Allen. 14.013/1 on the exchange is very tempting, but he has a horrible first round match against Ding Junhui (a repeat of last year's final). Mark Williams and Kyren Wilson also bring pedigree to the section, but the latter has been way below his best of late.
Williams very much respected
For the purposes of this column, I'll go with Saengkham each-way. But 30.029/1 about Williams on the exchange also makes plenty of appeal from a win-only perspective. I think he'll know too much for Fan Zhengyi in the last-32 and creep into this as a frontline contender as others fall by the wayside.
Headed by Trump, the second quarter is brutal. I do believe Judd is ready to answer any critics about his majors record but this won't be easy. Pang Junxu is a very tough opponent first up, potentially followed by Jack Lisowski and Mark Selby, just to reach the final. Barry Hawkins is another to strongly consider.
Trump draw a big negative
Trump is the likeliest winner of this event but 5.04/1 simply feels too short given the matches he will likely need to win. Despite failing to win when it mattered, Lisowski has produced an outstanding level at recent majors.
Selby hasn't done anything in this since 2016 but should never be written off in majors. He holds a perfect 5-0 record over first opponent Mark Joyce, so I'm happy to take the 14.013/1 via the exchange in expectation of him trading much shorter later in the competition.
Higgins preferred in third section
Three of the biggest stars - O'Sullivan, John Higgins and Neil Robertson - dominate the third quarter, but all have questions to answer. Ronnie withdrew from the previous event to protect his mental health and has a tough opener against the ever-dangerous Anthony McGill.
Robertson's form has been, frankly, abysmal. Higgins has been playing well enough, but his nerve appears to be going. On three occasions, Trump and O'Sullivan clawed back deficits in critical matches, keeping him out of finals.
Odds of 6.86/1 about Ronnie don't appeal given that McGill opener. As a longstanding Robertson fan, 20.019/1 really does but it is very hard to justify a bet on recent form. Which leaves Higgins and outsiders.
His first opponent Joe O'Connor is a tremendous prospect and was considered at 100/1101.00. So too Zhou Yuelong at 50/151.00, who starts against Robertson.
However I expect Higgins will perform well in this major and beat inferior opposition. He may very well come up short in the latter stages again but his recent record against O'Sullivan is very competitive. 16/117.00 is a fair each-way bet, all things considered.
Vafaei to produce best major effort
The bottom quarter looks ripe for an outsider. World champion Luca Brecel is not faring well since massively elevating his status. Shaun Murphy's game has been poor since experimenting with using multiple cues.
The other seeds are Zhang Anda - who has enjoyed a great season but had never previously looked anywhere near this level - and Ali Carter, who hasn't gone past the last-32 in this since 2012.
It strikes me as an ideal opportunity for Hossein Vafaei to truly announce himself as a contender on the highest stages. He's hinted at it in previous majors when beating Selby three times.
The Iranian comes in off a couple of good wins and has reached a semi-final already this term. Take the 40/141.00 each-way.
*Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty