Snooker's UK Championship gets under way on Monday and reigning champion Ding Junhui is the headline bet to make a successful title defence.
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I won't be the only one who expects DING JUNHUI to mount a bold defence of his UK Championship title but at the time of writing, his chances still appear to have been underestimated by the bookmakers and the 20/1 generally on offer is too big to ignore.
Ding's CV is an illustrious one and while many might have been quick to criticise him at times in the past, 14 ranking-title wins and counting - along with victory at the 2011 Masters - confirm that this is a modern-day giant of the sport.
While his failure to convert two semi-finals and a runner-up finish at the Crucible into a world title leaves Ding still searching for that final piece of the jigsaw, he has won the UK Championship on three occasions already and was brilliant when motoring to glory in York 12 months ago.
Ding reeled off four century breaks in his 10-6 demolition of Stephen Maguire in the final, having beaten Ronnie O'Sullivan earlier in the tournament, and there is a strong suspicion that he is in better shape for his title defence a year on.
The Chinese appeared to have very little going for him when arriving in York last year, a first-round defeat at the Northern Ireland Open hardly enhancing his credentials, but he looks to be coming nicely to the boil this time around with quarter-final finishes at the European Masters and Champion of Champions sandwiching a last-16 finish in the English Open.
Ding has already racked up significantly more tournament and match time this season, mainly due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic preventing him from returning to China, and you get the sense that being away from his family for such an extended period of time has left him with little option but to dedicate his time to the practice table.
Ding's commitment to the game, and in particular the practice table, might have been found wanting in the last couple of years but he certainly got himself well prepared for this event last year and the form he has shown at the Northern Ireland Open this week suggests he is approaching his peak again.
Of course, previewing an event while another big one is ongoing is never an easy task, but at the time of writing Ding is preparing for a quarter-final meeting with O'Sullivan in the second event of the Home Nations Series and win, lose or draw, he has to be a big player for the UK Championship.
Even were he to go all the way in the Northern Ireland Open, he will enjoy a few days off before his first round match against Jamie Curtis-Barrett on Thursday and his workload so far this season hasn't been anywhere near as strenuous as some have endured. Should O'Sullivan get the better of Ding in that quarter-final, or Ali Carter a day later, he won't be too perturbed with his UK defence clearly the main objective.
In fact, Ding's Home Nations record has been pretty rotten over the years and his exploits this week should be viewed as something of a bonus and also with a great deal of encouragement.
Ding does find himself housed in the same quarter of the draw as John Higgins and Mark Allen but there are few easy draws nowadays and the former was no match for the selection this week. Recent Champion of Champions hero, Allen, remains of significant interest having again looked in good touch this week but he is slightly shorter than Ding in the betting despite boasting nothing like the Triple Crown credentials of the reigning champion who looks primed for a bold show once again.
In the bottom half of the draw, Judd Trump and Ronnie O'Sullivan are on a collision course for a semi-final clash that would certainly set pulses racing and it will be fascinating to see how deep both go at the Northern Ireland Open.
At the current prices, the 9/2 available about O'Sullivan makes slightly more appeal given he generally finds his best form in time for this event and might well have won the last three renewals were it not for bumping into an inspired Ding in the fourth round last time.
I wrote last week that I felt O'Sullivan was steadily working his way into top gear after his sixth World Championship success in the summer. O'Sullivan has won the UK Championship a record seven times now and while that is in part down to his affection for York, you can nevertheless expect him to be pretty keyed up for this year's event.
Trump is a little harder to weigh up. The world number one has continued to dominate the sport so far this year but having won the English Open and again gone deep in the Northern Ireland equivalent, he will no doubt have been disappointed not to win the Champion of Champions - an event that has really grown in stature in recent years.
That comes on the back of Trump's surprisingly poor season in Triple Crown events last term and his shock defeat to Nigel Bond at this tournament 12 months ago is hard to forget. That can happen, of course, but I'm far from convinced that he is unbeatable and had the likes of Louis Heathcote, Michael Holt and Luca Brecel better held themselves together recently, his form might have a different look to it.
It is to Trump's great credit that he continues to find a way to win, but there is no doubting that he has been vulnerable in the early rounds of events and I'm not prepared to take 3/1 about him given he could potentially face any number of dangerous opponents in the third quarter even before that potential last-four smash up with O'Sullivan.
Instead, I'd prefer to take the 22/1 for KYREN WILSON to progress from the same quarter and give me a good run for my money.
Wilson's pedigree in Triple Crown events is there for all to see and while he has yet to win one, it surely can't be far away. Wilson enjoyed a dream run to the final of this summer's World Championship before proving powerless to resist O'Sullivan's charge to a 37th ranking title while he was also runner-up at the 2018 Masters.
I still think Wilson missed a golden opportunity when exiting this event at the quarter-finals stage in 2018 but his game continues to grow more well rounded by the day, keeping pace with his immense appetite to maintain his trajectory up the rankings.
Wilson's cue-ball control was some way behind the rest of his game a few years ago, but he has made big improvements in that department and compiled 46 centuries last season compared to 33 the year before. He is on 16 centuries so far this term.
The concern that the aforementioned World Championship final defeat might leave its mark was emphatically rebuffed when Wilson beat Trump in the final of the Championship League recently - his first ranking-title win on home soil - and two more quarter-final appearances, and a solid run at the Northern Ireland Open, confirm he remains in good nick.
I'm yet to be fully convinced that Wilson's emotions and desperation to succeed won't always get the better of him, but he is maturing all the time and has shown in the last year that he will have no fear if coming up against either Trump or O'Sullivan, or both, next week. At 22/1, he looks well worth a spin.
Of the other big names, there is the chance that early exits at the Northern Ireland Open might actually work in the favour of Neil Robertson and Mark Selby given both have endured heavy workloads of late. Still, both were also beaten in qualifying for the German Masters a week earlier and maybe the alarm bells should be starting to ring.
However, neither can be written off on that basis, particularly not Selby who has made a career out of defying popular belief, and his general return to form means that he will always be on punters' radars for these big events.
Along with Allen, Selby has to come under serious consideration but the facts are that he badly underperformed in his two matches last week while it's a similar story for Robertson who is hardly screaming to be backed at 7/1 given he has a few questions to answer, too.
With all that in mind, I'm happy to stick with my two-pronged attack which features two proven performers who look to be peaking just in time for one of the biggest events on the snooker calendar.
Preview posted 1900 GMT on 20/11/2020
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