John Higgins begins his latest quest to complete a hat-trick of Masters titles against debutant Zhao Xintong at Alexandra Palace on Monday.
Winner of snooker’s most prestigious invitational event in 1998 and 2006, the Wizard came within two frames of doing so 12 months ago, narrowly losing 10-8 to Yan Bingtao in the final.
Higgins is aiming to go one better this year and become the seventh player to lift the trophy three times or more after Ronnie O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry, Mark Selby, Cliff Thorburn, Steve Davis and the late Paul Hunter.
Incredibly, the Scotsman is still seeking his maiden silverware of the season, having lost out in the showpiece match at the Northern Ireland Open, English Open, Champion of Champions and Scottish Open.
The 46-year-old is set to make a record 28th consecutive appearance at the Masters – breaking a tie with Steve Davis and Jimmy White – with his debut in 1995 coming two years before Zhao was born.
The Chinese sensation is the only debutant in this year’s field – becoming the 93rd different player to appear at the event – and would love to follow in the footsteps of compatriot Yan by lifting the trophy at the first attempt.
He secured his place in emphatic fashion courtesy of his big breakthrough at the UK Championship before Christmas.
Indeed, Zhao beat the likes of Higgins and Barry Hawkins on the way to reaching the final, where he overcame Luca Brecel 10-5 to claim the first ranking title of his career.
The Cyclone subsequently climbed from 26th to ninth in the world rankings, and maintained his momentum with a dominant display in Group Three at the Championship League last week; winning all eight of his matches to advance to the Winners’ Group next month.
Two-time Masters Champion Mark Williams awaits the winner in the Quarter-Finals later this week.
Play gets underway at 1pm GMT on Monday with the match contested over the best of 11 frames at the Alexandra Palace.