The China Open
The penultimate ranking event of the season gets under way on Monday with the China Open in Beijing.
Almost 20 years in existence and running in consecutive campaigns since 2005, the China Open represents one of the most well-established ranking tournaments on the calendar. In recent years its importance has been heightened with its usual late March-early April scheduling providing top ranked players with a last opportunity in their jostling for position ahead of the World Championship qualifiers and the top 16 seeding list for the Crucible itself.
Fifteen players, all the way down to Anthony McGill in the current provisional standings, have already guaranteed their automatic Crucible berth. Ryan Day in 16th, with just a £15,000-odd head start on 17th placed Joe Perry, is the most at risk of missing out on a guaranteed trip to the World Championship.
Despite having not qualified for China, the odds are still firmly stacked in the 37 year-old's favour, with Perry requiring at least a run to the semi-finals to have any chance of dislodging the World Grand Prix finalist.
In total, seven players including Perry have the opportunity to still grab that elusive 16th spot. Two-time world champion Mark Williams is among them, but the Welshman would have to emerge with the title and the £85,000 winner's cheque to garner any such hope - otherwise it'll be the dreaded qualifiers and the prospect of having to win three tough ties at Ponds Forge to ensure a return to the scene of his most famous triumphs.
Regardless of all that, the China Open is a big deal in its own right and most of the top stars will be looking to bolster their confidence levels at this pivotal juncture of the term.
The in-form Judd Trump is the defending champion and the 27 year-old is the 9/2 joint favourite in the China Open snooker betting odds alongside Ronnie O'Sullivan to lift the trophy again come next Sunday. Trump, of course, only recently collected his seventh career ranking event after emerging victorious in the lucrative Players Championship in Llandudno, in doing so rising to number two in the world rankings behind Mark Selby.
Both Trump and Selby's qualifying round encounters have been held back to the venue stages, as have the preliminary matches involving the top two home hopes in Ding Junhui and Liang Wenbo. O'Sullivan meets Gareth Allen as he attempts to win the event for the first time in 17 years, while Stuart Bingham, John Higgins, and Shaun Murphy are also seeking to add to their previous glories this season.
This year's edition is notable in the absence of some of the game's best players, though, with Barry Hawkins and Marco Fu falling in qualification.
Neil Robertson and Northern Ireland's Mark Allen, meanwhile, decided not to enter at all - perhaps taking a leaf out of Selby's book, who missed the 2016 competition before proceeding to obtain a second World Championship success a month afterwards.
The China Open is also the second last opportunity for some of the lower ranked competitors to earn some vital ranking points as the campaign begins to reach its conclusion. Only the top 64 in the official standings remain on the Main Tour next season, with those outside that bracket who have finished their two-year card ultimately then dropping off the circuit. Eight of those will survive on a separate one-year list of top money-earners, an avenue that legend Jimmy White is chasing as he desperately attempts to prolong his illustrious professional career.
The 54 year-old is ninth, less than £200 behind Rod Lawler in eighth, but despite having qualified White has the frustrating burden of having to compete in one of the four wildcard round encounters before even getting what should be his rightful chance in the last 64.
That the China Open, now so well-established, still resorts to keeping the wildcard round for budding local talent is nothing short of ridiculous.
Still, it is what it is and aside from that the China Open is an event to look forward to as we creep ever closer to the campaign-concluding marathon of the mind in Sheffield.