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SPORTS STORY

Restoring pride

It’s been a stinker of past 12 months for snooker. Ed Hawkins looks ahead to the Masters in the hope that a great event will give snooker punters something to smile about

Snooker did not have a great 2010. Alex Higgins, the sport’s former luminary, passed away a shadow of his former self and John Higgins, the three-time world champion, was accused by the News Of The World of fixing matches for gambling syndicates.

Low ebb doesn’t quite cut it. Alex personified snooker’s fall from grace – his descent from the pedestal matched that of the sport that put him there – while Scotsman John had always been seen as the clean and efficient future of a game trying to rebuild.

Gambling scandals rock any sport to its core and it would be churlish to avoid all mention of it in what is a betting preview for the Masters, slated to start 9 January at Wembley Arena. It is the first big tournament of the year (offering the second biggest purse), seen as a valuable form guide for the World Championships in May, and it is to be hoped that snooker can put its annus horribilis behind it with a thrilling tournament.

John Higgins will be playing. It is important to note that he was cleared of corruption and served a six-month ban for bringing the sport into disrepute by failing to report an approach from fixers.

It is unlikely that punters will be questioning his integrity, especially as since he has come back into the sport he approached the baize with renewed vigour. In his first tournament back, he won the Euro Tour Players Championship in Hamm, Germany. It moved him up to No 2 in the world. It was as if he had never been away.

Higgins is the 13/2 second favourite behind Ronnie O’Sullivan, who gets a 3/1 quote from Paddy Power. O’Sullivan has won the Masters every other year since 2005. Higgins has not lifted the title since 2006 and emotional bettors out there will be able to make a case for him wanting to put 2010 behind him in the best possible fashion.

With Higgins and O’Sullivan in different halves of the draw, they cannot meet until the final – as they did in 2006. Since then, however, the tournament has been dominated by O’Sullivan and Mark Selby, the Jester from Leicester. Of the eight finals, either O’Sullivan or Selby have been in six of them.

Selby has won twice during that period, including last year (2010), and having avoided the Rocket in the draw, he could be a worthy wager at 13-2. He must first get past Mark King, however, who has a poor (1-4) head-to-head record against.

Marco Fu could be the best prospect to upset O’Sullivan, with the pair on collision course for a last-four battle. Fu has the edge over O’Sullivan on the head-to-heads (six wins from 11) and he looks an each-way steal at 20-1 with Paddy Power paying out half for the first two. It is the bet of the tournament.

Indeed, Neil Robertson, the No 1-ranked player, could knock out Ronnie before that stage. The Aussie is a 13-2 chance and has a relatively easy passage to a quarter-final clash, facing Stephen Hendry first up.

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