Back at The Barbican
The start of the UK Championship this week in York signals the first big major of the snooker season.
We are back at York Barbican for one of the sport's most prestigious events with all the big guns looking to land premium silverware.
With none of the majors held in full capacity venues last season due to Covid-19, and all the Chinese events struck off the calendar, there's a huge sense of anticipation as crowds are welcomed back to get behind their favourite stars.
As we prepare for 12 days of baize action, here are the big storylines to follow...
Who is the best in the world?
In a year when the Judd Trump's uninterrupted spell as world number one has faced disruption, the debate as to who is the best snooker player in the world has been high on the agenda.
Mark Selby's fourth world title in April, in addition to a run to the semi-final last year, has enabled him to dislodge Trump at the helm. Selby's big-money runs in Sheffield have placed him above Trump, who has won more events than anyone, and demonstrated an unrivalled level of consistency over the past two years.
On balance you'd have to say the watching world still widely regards Trump as the best despite his new ranking of number two, and he heads the Betfair Exchange odds at 4.47/2. He cemented this view with an emphatic capture of the Champions of Champions title in Bolton last week.
But when you're seen as the best, you're expected to win the biggest events.
Right now, Judd isn't the reigning champion of any of the three big majors and his career haul in these events is just three titles.
A fine return for many, but considered to be a little low for a player chasing all-time greatness, and with the talent he has in abundance.
Trump has time on his side to accumulate many more major honours but there's no time like the present to set about the task.
At 9.08/1, Selby offers the better value play if you're getting involved in the outright market.
A changing of the guard?
Ding Junhui returns to the scene of his last major win back in 2019 - and he cues off this time with plenty of jeopardy.
At the end of this year's tournament, he will see his £200,000 prize money from his UK Championship victory two years ago fall off from his ranking total. This dent will mean he drops out of the world's elite top 16, and with it see him his lose his place at the Masters in January, absent from the drawsheet for the first time since 2006.
Little wonder Ding is out to 48.047/1 to win in York.
He needs a run to final here in York to wrestle back his spot, which is an outcome many feel could be unlikely, given his form across the pandemic.
Amid this, and as Ding battles to preserve his status at the top of the game, his 21-year old compatriot Yan Bingtao is establishing himself among the top stars. Odds at near half the price of Ding show his progression. His place at the Masters is assured as he prepares to return as defending champion. Ever since his behind closed doors win, his game has jumped on another level, and as a result he's a player to watch in York, as he goes in search of a second major win. Betting.Betfair's snooker betting expert Paul Krishnamurty has recommended him as an each-way play for glory.
Rocket looking to relaunch
It wouldn't be the build up to a big tournament without the sport's biggest star Ronnie O'Sullivan getting a notable mention.
As has become obligatory throughout his career, any tournament exit sparks an inquest, and having not won a title since clinching his sixth world title 15 months ago, we are forced to observe the debate around whether O'Sullivan is in decline.
We've been here before of course, and he has been written off many times before. Into his mid-40s, it's inevitable Ronnie will not be at the peak of his powers.
But was his Sheffield triumph his swan song, or is there another one or two to come on the biggest stage? He is the 8.07/1 third favourite to triumph in York.
Such is O'Sullivan's stature in the game, while he is lauded for his longevity at the top level, this doesn't mean expectations fade particularly strongly. His fans still demand signature moments and scrutiny always looms large.
The UK Championship was the scene of his first ever major win back in 1993, and the event in which he broke Stephen Hendry's triple crown record in 2018, so maybe it'll create another fond memory for him as the doubters begin to circle once more.
Learning to win again
John Higgins' season is ironically taking on the same kind of shape as O'Sullivan's last year.
While he has impressively reached three finals in the past two months and rightly is one of the most in-form players on the circuit, he has yet to get his hands on silverware, and even hinted his belief he can win titles has taken a knock.
With this in mind, it's extremely difficult to judge just how good his season has been so far with the disappointment of losing three finals likely at the front of his mind.
By virtue of his excellent consistency this season, Higgins is one of the big contenders but as he reaches the business end, all eyes will be on whether he can get one over the line. The veteran is an appealing 15.014/1 for York glory.
A couple of big first round prices have also caught my eye - I like Duane Jones at bigger than 2/1 to surprise Jordan Brown on Thursday and Hammad Miah can pull off a major shock and overcome Matthew Stevens, landing a 3/1 shot.