The big money Betfred Premier League kicks off for another year tonight, with the first match featuring the two favourites for the title.
Ronnie O’Sullivan has won the event for the last two years and is as short as evens with the Tote to complete a hat-trick.
It’s an ideal competition for O’Sullivan. Uniquely, there is a 25 seconds per shot time limit in operation, which means players have to get on with it, limiting the amount of safety play.
Also, O’Sullivan is known to hate having to hang around at week long tournaments, where there may be two or three days between matches. In the League, he merely has to breeze in, play his match and then breeze out again.
There is a huge financial incentive on offer as well. The top prize is £50,000 – more than most ranking events – and players receive £1,000 for every frame won plus another £1,000 for every century.
O’Sullivan scooped £87,000 from the event last year and will be highly motivated to top up his bank balance still further.
However, his opponent in Carlisle tonight, China’s Ding Jun Hui, comes into the event having beaten O’Sullivan 9-6 in the season’s first tournament, last month’s Northern Ireland Trophy.
Ding, still only 19, plays the same flowing sort of game as O’Sullivan and is his main rival to League success this season.
The League line-up is determined by promoters Matchroom and their decision to exclude John Higgins, the only player to win more than one major title last season, has raised eyebrows.
Instead, Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty, world champion Graeme Dott and veterans Steve Davis and Jimmy White have been given the nod.
Hendry, six times the champion, is in action tonight against Dott, who will surely struggle at first with the shot-clock.
Dott’s style is resolutely methodical – he battled against Peter Ebdon for 14 hours in their world final – and he will have to change his entire game if he’s to make any impact on the League.
Hendry, though back to no.1 in the world, has not produced consistently good form for a couple of years but his fast, attacking style of play is tailor made for success in the League, which is why he’s only once failed to qualify for the semi-finals in the 14 years since play-offs were introduced.