Richard Mann discusses the key talking points ahead of the Dafabet Masters where Judd Trump will bid to successfully defend the crown he claimed 12 months ago.
Can snooker survive without Ronnie?
It seems strange to begin a Masters talking points piece discussing someone who won't even be contesting the event but when that someone is Ronnie O'Sullivan, how can I not?
O'Sullivan is synonymous with The Masters, winning the tournament for the first time back in 1995 and claiming the title six times since, most recently when beating Joe Perry in the final in 2017.
Having made it all the way to final 12 months ago and on the back of a solid, if not spectacular, season to date, he seemed sure to prove a big player at Alexandra Palace once again.
However, not for the first time, O'Sullivan didn't see it like everyone else and his decision to skip The Masters has rocked an event that remains one of the biggest on the tour but, like all the others, relies heavily on the sport's brightest stars.
Time and time again we have seen that nobody in snooker is able to grab public attention quite like O'Sullivan and his ability to transcend sports and draw fans from every walk of life has made him every inch the poster boy of the sport.
O'Sullivan truly is the fan's favourite and it is no surprise that his 19th Triple Crown success at the 2018 UK Championship in York was so warmly received and captured imagination so vividly.
It was the same again when O'Sullivan met current world champion Judd Trump in the final of the season's Northern Ireland Open and he although he came off second best on that occasion, the match itself proved to be a fine spectacle and served as yet another reminder of the power of O'Sullivan when it comes to promoting the game to the masses and not just the most loyal snooker purists.
This was again in evidence a few weeks later when O'Sullivan's defence of his UK Championship crowd ended before the latter stages of the tournament and for all Ding Junhui's return to form was a heartening story, it wasn't one that had fans, in this country at least, clambering for their TV remotes on Sunday evening in the same way they had done 12 months earlier.
The fact Trump had also fallen on his sword early in York dealt the UK Championship another blow and World Snooker will be desperate that he can fill the void left in London by the absent O'Sullivan.
Trump and Neil Robertson went some way to showing that there is light at the end of the O'Sullivan tunnel when playing out an enthralling final of the Champion of Champions in November, the Australian coming from 9-8 behind to prevail in a brilliant match that really did strike a chord with fans.
The fact the whole tournament was televised live on ITV4 will have certainly helped to raise the profile of the event but that social media went into a frenzy as the final ebbed one way and then the other at its dramatic conclusion offered clear hope that it isn't O'Sullivan alone who can deliver the publicity snooker's ever-expanding list of sponsors demand.
For World Snooker and event organisers at The Masters, they will be praying for something similar in London as the tournament tries to come out from behind the large shadow O'Sullivan's absence has thrown over the build up.
A question that many snooker fans and pundits alike might have asked themselves in recent years is whether snooker can survive, and indeed thrive, without Ronnie O'Sullivan. At the second biggest event on the calendar, and in front of the BBC and Eurosport cameras, we might be about to find out.
Expectation threatens to weigh heavy on Trump
Heading into last month's UK Championship, odds compilers up and down the land were doing something that they had rarely done before; they were pricing up Ronnie O'Sullivan as second favourite to win a snooker tournament, a snooker tournament he had dominated in recent years.
It signalled a seismic shift in the sport, O'Sullivan's dominance finally brought to an end by Judd Trump's brilliance in a previous 12 months that had seen him win the Masters in bloodless fashion as well as being crowned world champion for the first time.
Trump was now firm favourite to prevail in York and although Nigel Bond's heroics ensured that didn't go to plan, the reigning champion will return Alexandra Palace as an even warmer favourite with no O'Sullivan in opposition this time.
Trump finds himself as short at 2/1 to successfully defend his crown and while, on the face of it, those odds would appear very prohibitive, anything close to the form Trump displayed when dismantling O'Sullivan in last year's final would surely make him a tough nut to crack once again.
Unlike to many to have come before him, Trump has suffered no hangover from winning his first World Championship title and victories at the International Championship, World Open and Northern Ireland Open already this term have seen him move further clear at the top of the world rankings.
The last two of those victories came in the middle of a real purple patch that saw Trump reach three finals in as many weeks but just as his star had risen to even greater heights, his fortunes took a slight nosedive before Christmas.
That aforementioned shock defeat at the hands of Bond in York was followed by a quarter-final loss at the subsequent Scottish Open and while those results shouldn't be the cause of too much concern, his defeat to Ian Burns in qualifying for the European Masters soon after was a major setback.
Whether Trump's heavy workload before Christmas finally caught up with him remains to be seen - and a good break over the festive period ought to help in that respect - but one has to wonder whether Trump now being the most coveted scalp on the tour has played a part, too.
In the opening match of Trump's successful defence of the Northern Ireland Open earlier in the campaign, James Cahill produced his most polished performance of the season to take that match down to the wire while Bond and Burns found their very best form to defeat Trump recently and claim their biggest victories in quite some time.
Robertson's memorable victory over Trump in the Champion of Champions final was by far and away the best snooker he has produced this term while O'Sullivan found something close to his peak form in his meeting with Trump in Belfast.
Wherever there is a King there is usually someone close by waiting to dethrone him and there is no doubt that some are being inspired when taking on the world champion and current world number one.
There is also the possibility that Trump himself might just be feeling the added pressure of knowing he is now strong favourite at every event he enters.
Trump doesn't appear to be the kind of character to be fazed by such expectation - so much has been expected of him from a young age - while his maturity and cool head has impressed everyone connected with the sport in the last year or so, but it would be naive to think he no longer feels pressure or is not at all weighed down by the heavy level of expectation he, himself, places on his shoulders.
Trump is well aware that these are the years where he can truly leave his stamp on the sport, add his name to the list of great players to have come before him, and amass the large number of titles that the likes of O'Sullivan and John Higgins have already managed to do.
O'Sullivan's absence in London will only serve to increase that sense of opportunity but with it comes heightened expectation. How he copes with that will go a long way to deciding the fate of his Masters defence.
Williams battling to defy Father Time
I'm sure we've been here before.
In fact, in the years preceding his third World Championship victory in the 2018, Mark Williams was close to calling time on a decorated career, so bad had his slump in form been and so barren had the big wins become.
When Williams lifted the Northern Ireland Open trophy aloft at the end of 2017, it was the first time he had tasted ranking-title success since 2011, and it kick-started a dramatic return to the top of the sport that culminated in him beating John Higgins at the Crucible the following spring.
Last season was less prolific, but he still managed to taste victory at the World Open, while he made four more quarter-finals.
This term he has found things much tougher, however, a run to the final of the International Championship the only highlight in a campaign that has seen him suffer a number of early exits.
His decision not to defend his World Open crown certainly raised a few eyebrows and when, by his own admission, he produced a dismally poor performance to lose to Michael White at the UK Championship in December, his earlier threat to walk away from the game appeared very close to becoming reality.
Nevertheless, we have been here before with Williams and his 2018 World Championship win - some 15 years after his previous Crucible triumph - shows that this truly great player can never be written off.
Furthermore, Williams looked much more like his old self when qualifying for the European Masters and German Masters just before Christmas to ignite hopes of yet another resurgence from the Welshman.
At 44 years of age, Williams is fighting against Father Time but he will be hopeful of proving more than a match for Stuart Bingham in their first-round clash at The Masters before dreaming of the type of deep run he enjoyed when winning this prestigious event in 1998 and 2003.
Time stops for no man but Mark Williams might not be done with just yet.