The post-Christmas lull might be a time for many to sit back and reflect before the New Year kicks into gear; however, for the world's finest snooker players, it can only mean one thing: The Masters. The Dafabet sponsored World Snooker Masters is one of the highlights of the year (despite taking place in January) and the 2016 event will be no exception.
With shots set to be fired inside the Alexandra Palace between January 10 and January 17, snooker fans can look forward to a week of intense competition between the world's leading professionals. Topping the bill and hoping to retain the title he won in impressive fashion in 2015 is Shaun Murphy. The affable reigning champion has struggled in the latter stages of major tournaments in 2015, but he'll be hoping the New Year will bring the chance for a new start.
A shock loss to 15-year-old Yan Bingtao in the Champion of Champions event and a disappointing performance in the UK Masters against Marco Fu will no doubt be on Murphy's mind as he heads into The 2016 Masters.
However, if the 32-year-old can summon up the sort of performance he managed against Neil Robertson in 2015, he'll be a tough man to beat. On that occasion Murphy thrashed Robertson 10-2 to take the title in impressive fashion; however, it's unlikely either Murphy or Robertson will be in that sort of form when the action kicks off on January 10.
Indeed, while Murphy's fortunes have taken a tumble since that memorable performance, Robertson has been on the up and his latest outing at the UK Masters proved that he's on top form heading into 2016. After whitewashing world number one Mark Selby in the semi-final, Robertson took on China's Liang Wenbo in the final of the 2015 UK Masters and romped to a 10-5 victory thanks, in part, to an inspiring text message from John Terry.
With £300,000 in his back pocket and the mindset of the Terminator (Robertson watches Arnold Schwarzenegger videos before he plays), it's a fair bet that Robertson will be among the top contenders fighting for Murphy's crown in January. According to the bookmakers, recent form prevails over past achievements as it's Robertson who leads the head-to-head betting. Currently priced at 9/2 with the likes of William Hill Sports, the Aussie will start The Masters as second favourite behind the prodigal Ronnie O'Sullivan.
As for Murphy, the current betting line is hovering around the 7/1 mark, but many suspect this is more a reflection of his status as champion, rather than his recent performance on the baize. Of course, with Murphy and Robertson contesting the 2015 final and both players enjoying contrasting runs of form in recent months it's easy to assume they are the only runners in the race. However, that couldn't be further from the truth as the £600,000 event will see a plethora of talent shooting for the £200,000 top prize.
As we've said, the prodigal O'Sullivan will make his much anticipated return to the tables for The Masters. Despite some time away from the game, the bookies have donned their nostalgia-tinted glasses and priced the game's most naturally gifted player at 7/2. Justified or not, the odds would suggest O'Sullivan is the man to beat at Ally Pally, but those looking for value shouldn't forget about Mark Selby.
The world number one is 7/1 for the title with most bookmakers, which puts him fractionally behind Judd Trump at 11/12. Beyond the obvious picks for The Masters, perennial contender John Higgins is a fair price at 10/1, while recent wildcard Liang Wenbo could come close to causing another major upset at 66/1.
Whether the odds stack up or not is in the hands of the snooker gods, but it's clear the Mr. Murphy will have his work cut out if he wants to retain his title in January. Will the pressure of poor form cause him to falter or can he turn back the clock and produce another vintage performance when the action begins? Tune in on January 10 to find out. For more odds leading up to the event, check out William Hill Sports today!