There was barely time to sweep away the ticker tape from Sunday night’s conclusion of the Northern Ireland Open before the UK Championship got under way in increasingly familiar surroundings this week.
Snooker’s second-biggest tournament is the latest to take place in the behind-closed-doors bubble of the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes as the sport battles on in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
But the event remains significant, with a £200,000 first prize for the winner and the chance to join a roll call of all-time greats.
Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the issues surrounding the tournament.
The empty arena scenario appears to have had a negligible effect on the sport’s leading names, with some, including Ronnie O’Sullivan, even indicating it might be preferable given the associated reduction of pressure. Four of the five ranking finals this season have been contested between players ranked in the top eight in the world, certainly suggesting it is a situation that better suits the sport’s leading lights.
Eight and counting?
O’Sullivan heads into the tournament with a record seven UK titles already in the bag, and a run of form that suggests he will be in contention once again. Lockdown snooker certainly seems to have left O’Sullivan in a more laid-back frame of mind, and despite his Northern Ireland final defeat to Judd Trump on Sunday, he seems in good shape to seal more silverware.
Stephen Hendry’s shock decision to accept an invitational tour wild card at the start of this season raised the delicious prospect of the five-time UK champion reappearing in the event for the first time since a first-round loss to Stephen Maguire in 2011. However, the 51-year-old subsequently decided to delay his comeback until later in the campaign.
No fewer than 21 Chinese players will start the main draw for the event, including the defending champion, Ding Junhui. However, Ding and Yan Bingtao remain the only Chinese players inside the world’s top 16 with the long-expected wave of Chinese title contenders not yet forthcoming. Yan apart, many of the Chinese players have been plagued by inconsistency, with Ding admitting they need to “practice more” if they are to emulate his trailblazing example.
Up for the challenge
While another final between Trump and O’Sullivan would be no surprise, many eyes will be on a resurgent Mark Selby, winner of the title in 2012 and 2016, and increasingly showing signs of getting back to his resilient best. Mark Allen’s recent Champion of Champions win suggests he has bounced back well from another Crucible disappointment, while Neil Robertson is also shaping up well having reached two finals already this season.