Preview: World Championship Quarter-Finals
144 have become just eight as the World Championship embarks on the quarter-final stage at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
Four former champions remain in contention to win the sport’s blue riband event, and with it the whopping £375,000 champion’s cheque.Arguably the tie of the round is the eagerly anticipated clash between Ronnie O’Sullivan and Ding Junhui.
The pair was in excellent form during the first week of action and this one promises to be a heavyweight encounter featuring an all-time great and a player destined to eventually be included in that bracket.
While O’Sullivan was well tested in his opening round fixture with Gary Wilson before a convincing defeat of rival Shaun Murphy in the last 16, it was the opposite for China’s Ding.The 2016 runner-up has already faced and overcome a couple of countrymen, stamping his authority as his nation’s leading force in the game – but not without some serious threat.
Zhou Yuelong’s inexperience proved the major difference in round one but contemporary Liang Wenbo gave Ding a stern workout in the second round with the latter forced to fight back from 12-11 down to clinch it in a decider.
Ding would possibly have lost a close match like that at the Crucible in years gone by but last season’s run to the final, coupled with a close working relationship with coach Terry Griffiths, has appeared to inspire the 30 year-old with a new steely resolve.
O’Sullivan represents a mountainous task, though, with scars aplenty from the duo’s previous battles with one another.
As a spotty teenager, Ding shocked O’Sullivan in the final of the 2006 Northern Irishman to capture what was already a third ranking title, but that amazingly was his last victory of relevance over the “Rocket”.
There have been a lot of crushing losses in the meantime.
O’Sullivan almost permanently bruised Ding’s ego a few months after Belfast when he destroyed the youngster in the final of the Masters, a match which reduced the then 19 year-old to tears.
Later in 2007, Ding’s debut at the Crucible proved to be another nightmare run in with the five-time world champion as he lost 10-2 – a result which set into motion a disappointing decade of form in Sheffield.
More recently, O’Sullivan beat Ding 9-3 in the 2014 Welsh Open when the Chinese number one was at the peak of his powers during his five-star campaign in the rankers.
At that point, Ding still seemed vulnerable but a lot has changed between then and now.
Ding’s entire demeanour around the table is different – he looks more relaxed and shares in more jokes with fellow players, the referee, and the crowd.
Gone, mostly anyway, are the days when he slumps in his chair when things aren’t going exactly as planned.
Whether he can cope with the pressure of playing O’Sullivan, a player he has a tame record against, remains to be seen, but Ding appears to be as well equipped as he has ever been.
For O’Sullivan, if he maintains the driven focus and determination in which he demonstrated in his first two victories in this tournament, he is going to be extremely difficult to oust.
There is a growing sense that the 41 year-old is in the mood to prove doubters, of which there have been many of late, completely wrong – which could be ominous for even the fiercest of challengers.The one thing O’Sullivan hasn’t experienced yet at the Crucible in 2017, though, is being behind.
All throughout the campaign the Englishman has struggled somewhat when he’s been put under it, so Ding will be desperately trying to build an early lead.
Either way, it promises to be an outstanding occasion and hopefully it lives up to its billing as a potential classic.
Mark Selby and Marco Fu also feature in a star-studded top half of the draw.
The defending champion performed solidly to overcome a potentially tricky obstacle in China’s Xiao Guodong.
It was a much more gruelling affair for Fu, who edged Neil Robertson 13-11 in a dramatic, tense tussle.
Selby and Fu’s encounter comes their gripping semi-final twelve months ago, which the Englishman won 17-15 en route to a second world title.
However, Hong Kong’s Fu is arguably an even better player now than he was then and will provide a serious examination of the world number one’s credentials for a third World Championship victory in four years.
The 39 year-old has played with a fresh and freer confidence in the last six months, generally stemming from an increased attacking mentality and faster approach around the table.
Only for a few narrow defeats, a couple to O’Sullivan in the UK Championship and Masters, Fu may well have more silverware to revel in from the campaign other than solely the Scottish Open.
Fu didn’t play great against Robertson but raised his game and got the job done when it mattered most.
Selby, of course, has emerged triumphant in an abundance of tournaments this season, including the recent China Open, and his ability to survive those close encounters, thrive upon them even, has made him into the animal he is on the table today.
In the bottom half of the draw, John Higgins is beginning to look like the favourite to go on and reach another final in Sheffield – although there’s three hardened professionals who will have a strong say about that.
The Scot’s quarter-final opponent is Kyren Wilson, who has reached this stage of the tournament for the second successive season.
The 25 year-old hasn’t really played especially well for the majority of both of his initial encounters but did what needed to be done against David Grace and Stuart Bingham to advance.
Higgins, on the other hand, was in supreme form as he dispatched an in-form Mark Allen 13-9 to reach a 13th Crucible quarter-final.
The 41 year-old hasn’t been beyond this hurdle since he claimed the last of his four crowns in 2011, but he’ll be a big favourite to do so over the next couple of days.
Higgins and Wilson have only faced each other once before, with the latter coming out on top in a European Tour event in 2015.
Yet, there’s a seismic difference between a minor ranking tournament in Germany and a World quarter-final in Sheffield, which has been the scene of some of Higgins’ greatest moments.
Wilson has a great temperament which keeps him involved in many matches others might wilt in sooner, but his overall form remains unconvincing.
If Higgins produces the kind of determined display as he did against Allen, it’s hard to see him failing to reach the last four and the single table set-up.
Finally, Barry Hawkins and Stephen Maguire compete in the fourth quarter-final duel.
Maguire took full advantage of Judd Trump’s exit by thrashing Rory McLeod 13-3 with a session to spare, while Hawkins beat 2006 champion Graeme Dott 13-6.
The “Hawk” has quietly gone about his business without many really seriously considering his credentials as a possible world champion.
That would be foolish, considering his pedigree at the Crucible since 2013 in reaching at least the quarter-final every year.
The 38 year-old’s stellar success in the World Grand Prix earlier this season also gave weight to the impression that he is capable of landing titles, rather than just consistently competing for them at the business end.
Hawkins will be the favourite against Maguire but the latter now has five wins under his belt – two at the Crucible and three from qualifying at Ponds Forge – so is completely match sharp again after a significant period in the doldrums.
The Scot’s temperament, so often his detriment, has been sound but he hasn’t been tested so far, highlighted by the fact he’s dropped a mere five frames in beating Anthony McGill and McLeod.
Hawkins will provide a stricter examination and whether Maguire can rein in his tendency to get overly emotional when things aren’t going his way could be one of the key components as to where the eventual outcome lies.
Working in the Glaswegian’s favour is a superior head-to-head record against Hawkins, and perhaps the fact that he probably wasn’t expecting to be involved at such a late stage of proceedings this year.
Either way, promises to be another fascinating couple of days at the Crucible.