Snooker's first major of the season starts on Tuesday from York, with Betfair Live Video providing comprehensive coverage throughout. Here's bang-in-form Paul Krishnamurty's preview and eight selections...
"The 21 year-old Masters champion just took care of Mark Selby in consecutive events and looks one to keep onside in majors."
Heading into the first major of the season, this column has hit form! For the second event running, we were on both Champion of Champions finalists, Judd Trump and John Higgins. The season's stats are now in profit.
Formbook generally stands up in this major
A look back through past UK Championship winners shows very clearly that the cream rises to the top in this major. We haven't seen a winner at 50/1 or more since the 1980s, and very few finalists started at that mark. Last year, the best two players in the world at that time came through, with Neil Robertson beating Judd Trump in a thrilling deciding frame.
A repeat is scheduled and should be regarded as highly likely. However, as I'll explain below, backing both is sadly too expensive as a strategy.
Lovely draw for the defending champ
As number one seed, Robertson is at the top of the draw and is preferred on the basis of that route. There aren't many huge hurdles prior the semis. Zhou Yuelong or Anthony McGill in the last-16. Mark Williams in the last-eight. He was in superb form when winning the English Open a fortnight ago and would start very strong favourite even against those hardest-case scenarios.
For an alternative, I prefer a much bigger odds bet to Williams in that mini-section. 200/1 about Tom Ford is eyecatching. He reached the semis of this three years ago, has made that same stage three times in ranking events since, and hasn't done too much wrong in early rounds this season.
Bingtao to reinforce his majors credentials
Quarter two is much more competitive, with Ronnie O'Sullivan, Kyren Wilson and Yan Bingtao all boasting strong claims. Despite hinting at decline, Ronnie has remained pretty reliable against inferior opposition but Bingtao beat him last time. The 21 year-old Masters champion just took care of Mark Selby in consecutive events and looks one to keep onside in majors.
Kyren is always high on my list, because he's so good in the early rounds. However the brutal truth is, for all his ability and attitude, he keeps falling short against the big-guns, on the biggest stages. A 6-0 defeat to Trump last week reinforced the point.
Capable Saengkham at insulting odds
The chosen outsider in this section is Noppon Saengkham at the ludicrous price of 500/1. I am not alone in thinking the Thai could break through this season and he has shown enough at the Crucible to take seriously in majors. He's much better than these odds.
At 5.39/2 prior to the Champion of Champions final, Trump's odds were are eyecatching. At his best, he is virtually unbeatable and there were strong signs that peak is imminent. Perhaps not surprisingly, the odds have now shrunk to 4.67/2 and, however good he looked in Bolton, backing him here requires a considerable leap of faith, given how he's performed in majors.
Trump has underperformed in majors
Looking back over the past decade, he's made this final twice without winning and no further semis. In ten World Championship appearances, he's won once but made no other finals, and only two semis. Worst of all in the Masters, where he starts in the last-16, he's made only one final and three further semis.
Perhaps this is temporary. Everything else about Trump's game screams 'global dominance' and I'm certainly not dismissing him but, from a tricky draw, I'll reluctantly swerve him as an outright punt.
Try running acca on a repeat of last year's final
There are no odds published as yet for 'Name the Finalists' but my recommendation is 3 units on Trump v Robertson at a guesstimated 13/2. To get on this now, simply place a double on both in each round to win their matches, then reinvest the returns in the next round as a running accumulator. If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask me on Twitter @paulmotty.
There isn't a lot to trouble Trump prior to at least the last-16, where perhaps Barry Hawkins might await. Take out his failure to win them and Hawkins has a more impressive record in majors. He hasn't been in great form but a couple of easy openers offer a chance to turn that around.
Another option is ultra-talented 'comeback kid' Cao Yupeng, although 80/1 is short enough given a very tough opener against Jamie Jones. The latter makes some appeal at 1000.0 on the exchange.
Gilbert now a genuine threat to all
The bigger negative for Trump is his potential quarter-final opponent, with either Mark Allen, David Gilbert or Shaun Murphy likely to await. The first two have started the season very well and Murphy showed at the Crucible how he can come alive in majors.
Of that trio, in keeping with recent columns, I'm perservering with Gilbert. Winner of the Championship League and generally in fine fettle, had he not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Selby last week, he could have been a prime contender.
Moreover, David's stellar performances at the 2019 World Championship and 2020 Masters remain fresh in the memory. That proved (importantly, to himself) that he has the game for majors and with plenty more experience against the big-guns gained since, a breakthrough could well be imminent. He certainly appeals at much bigger odds than Murphy and Allen.
Could resurgent Higgins run out of gas?
The bottom quarter looks primarily between world champion Mark Selby and John Higgins. Ding Junhui's record in this also warrants respect but he remains far from convincing.
I'm happy to take on all three. Selby hasn't hit peak form yet this term and is always risky in early rounds against dangerous opponents. On that score, Hossein Vafaei or Pang Junxu in the last-64 are both potential world-beaters.
Higgins is tempting at 14.5 and over-priced on form throughout 2021. Sure, he ran out of gas against Trump in the CoC final but that was merely in keeping with recent struggles against the younger man. I just wonder when the run will end.
Robertson and Day appeal at huge odds
Instead of these big-guns - either of whom will likely need to pass Trump to reach the final - I'll throw a couple of cheap darts at rank outsiders. 200/1 chance Ryan Day has always had the ability to challenge in a major. I like his early path and these would be attractive each-way odds if reaching the last-16.
Finally Jimmy Robertson is preferred over the perennially frustrating Jack Lisowski in Selby's section. The Scot has rapidly improved of late, having saved his card at the end of last season. He's only lost recently to Trump (twice, once in a decider, not disgraced in either); Gilbert in a decider after a high-class affair and Williams at the British Open semis. Not the form of a 250/1 chance.
Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty
2021/22: +16.4 units
2020/21: -21.6 units
2019/20: +6 units
2018/19: +154.5 units
2017/18: +106 units
*Back a Judd Trump v Neil Robertson Final for 3 units stake - back the double in each round*
Back Neil Robertson 5u @ 7.413/2
Back Tom Ford 0.25u e/w @ 201.0200/1
Back Yan Bingtao 1.5u e/w @ 23.022/1
Back Noppon Saengkham 0.25u e/w @ 501.0500/1
Back Barry Hawkins 0.75u e/w @ 51.050/1
Back David Gilbert 1u e/w @ 41.040/1
Back Ryan Day 0.25u e/w @ 201.0200/1
Back Jimmy Robertson 0.25u e/w @ 251.0250/1