The first round of the 2013 Masters came to a conclusion last night with another belter of a game to add to what was already a memorable opening few days.
The best was saved until last as Mark Selby left it late once again by staging a trademark comeback victory at the expense of the defenseless Stuart Bingham.
‘Ballrun’ had produced some exhibition-style snooker to race into a 5-1 lead but immediately looked nervous with the winning line within his grasp.
Having never won a match before in the prestigious invitational event and with every extra frame that his opponent was able to claw back, Bingham was on the cusp of desperation.
This, of course, is why Selby is world no.1 and a two-time Masters champion.
It has been said many times of him before that he is the master of brinkmanship – a phrase I wholeheartedly despise – but in truth it is hard to argue with the logic.
The Leicester potter’s refusal to ever give up in matches he has no right to win has become his most endearing characteristic and one that has brought him to the absolute summit of the game in such a competitive era.
Selby’s exploits bring comparisons to John Higgins. He is a long way off achieving the same level of accomplishments as the Scotsman but for his name just to be uttered in the same breath as the four-time world champion brings honour in itself.
The thing to note as well is that Selby’s comeback wasn’t jittery. Barring one missed pink in the decider, the UK champion totally dominated the last five frames.
Though strange to say, with the bodily demeanors of both by the time it got to 4-5, the eventual conquest was almost inevitable.
With the passing of this first, tough test, Selby now returns to the top of the discussion in terms of favourites for the title.
And he arguably couldn’t face an easier quarter-final opponent in a thoroughly out-of-sorts Mark Williams – I said arguably..don’t bite!
Of course it is strange to say that about a multiple World, UK and Masters champion but the Welshman’s own turnaround triumph over countryman Matthew Stevens was far from convincing.
Williams’ last 18 months have been very poor by his high standards and he was lucky to run into an opponent who couldn’t apply the killer punch when he was up against the ropes at 4-1 down.
Stevens, who is also suffering of late and was awful himself, missed an easy brown to go to within one frame of victory and never recovered thereafter.
Williams slowly improved as he saw his friend crumble but if he matches his early game display against Selby he will be absolutely annihilated.
That said, he was my random pick for the title in my preview article and I’m still of the belief that his form is bound to turn around eventually – the unlikely success over Stevens could kickstart something there, we’ll see.
In reality, all of the last eight encounters are difficult to predict such is the standard in the competition.
The two ties of the round have to both be in the top half.
Defending champion Neil Robertson, who was one of four players to come through final frame classics in the opening round, must dismantle the challenge of Northern Ireland’s Mark Allen to keep his dreams alive of remaining the king of the Alexandra Palace.
Allen is unpredictable and that brings its own level of pressure for Robertson.
The pair produced a barrage of big breaks in an entertaining battle at this stage two years ago with World Open champ Allen coming out on top 6-4, but Robbo gained revenge last year in the last 16.
Both have their own individual goals. Australia’s Robertson has his eyes set on joining the elite of the elite, while Allen perhaps just wants to be considered in the conversation of top contenders.
John Higgins and Shaun Murphy is the other eye-catching clash, and they too have previous in this tournament.
Englishman Murphy edged two-time winner Higgins 6-4 in the semi-finals last year only to go on and lose the final to Robertson.
Murphy has a habit of starting events well before letting his form slip at the business end – as was highlighted again in his final defeat to Selby in York last month.
Murphy has had the talent to have won a lot more silverware and yet still he should be proud of his achievements – if he were to win this week he would join a list of only seven people who have won all three BBC majors.
Higgins, though, is a legend of snooker who really has nothing left to prove, only records to break and titles to add to a glittering career.
It is a testament to his ability that at 37 he is still considered by many to be the favourite for glory on Sunday.
Murphy is definitely playing well enough to have a say in that and perhaps the fact that it is still relatively early in proceedings will be a blessing in disguise for him.
Finally, Graeme Dott faces the daunting task of trying to overcome hot-shot Judd Trump to reach what would amazingly be his first semi-final appearance at the Masters.
Both men had lucky escapes in the first round and it will be interesting to see who comes out the stronger – the safe bet is with Trump, who having avoided a second big first round flop in succession ought to have had his confidence galvanised again.
Either way, if the amount of drama that was served up in the last few days can be repeated for the quarter-final stage we are in for a real treat.
Neil Robertson v Mark Allen
Shaun Murphy v John Higgins
Mark Selby v Mark Williams
Graeme Dott v Judd Trump