This is the first ranking event to be staged in the Middle East for 14 years. Players of the early 1990s loved going to Dubai and I’ve no doubt the leading stars of today will receive an enthusiastic welcome in the Kingdom of Bahrain.
A few years ago, Matthew Stevens would have been one of the favourites. However, when I was looking down the draw earlier it was something of a surprise to see his name.
When was the last time he even played in a big TV match?
He didn’t qualify for Belfast or Glasgow and was only excused having to do so for Bahrain because of the enforced withdrawals of Mark Selby, John Higgins and Ding Junhui, who are all playing in the Premier League.
Matthew needs to start performing. He is currently 33rd in the provisional rankings and in danger of disappearing from view altogether.
So what went wrong?
Firstly, let’s nail one much repeated myth, namely that his game fell apart following the death of his father, Morrell, in 2001.
Actually, his form had already started to look shaky following his failure to win the 2000 world title. He led Mark Williams 13-7 in the final but lost 18-16.
He was still young and knew there were plenty more chances to come but must have found himself thinking in the months that followed that he should have been world champion instead of his good friend.
Of course Morrell’s death did then have an impact. He was his biggest supporter, travelled the circuit with him and Matthew was only 23 when he died.
Stevens won the 1999 Scottish Masters, 2000 Wembley Masters and 2003 UK Championship, got up to as high as fourth in the rankings and developed a reputation as a form man at the Crucible.
From 2000 to 2004 he appeared in a final and three semi-finals there but each match he lost was close – 18-16 to Williams, 17-15 to Higgins, 17-16 to Peter Ebdon and 17-15 to Graeme Dott.
Such close defeats inevitably take their toll and create a sense of uncertainty when future matches go to the wire.
So it was that the Welshman should lose in the final in 2005 to Shaun Murphy, a match he again led and again could have won.
Then another tragedy, the long illness and subsequent death of his best friend, Paul Hunter.
Remember, these two had travelled the circuit together since they were juniors. It is inconceivable that Paul’s death did not seriously affect him, on the table and off it.
His form deteriorated to such an extent that at the Crucible in 2007 he needed to beat Shaun Murphy in the quarter-finals to stay in the top 16.
All was well when he led 12-7 but Murphy recovered to win 13-12 and Stevens was relegated from the elite group.
Does he have the hunger to return? Has he ever had the determination of the true greats of the game?
Only he can tell you, but one thing I do know is that, in terms of pure talent, Stevens is one of the best players I have ever seen.
I would like to think that his best days are not behind him but, at 31, he is facing an important few years that will tell us one way or another.