Ronnie O’Sullivan and Barry Hawkins were the first men to reach the semi-finals of the Dafabet Masters at the Alexandra Palace on Thursday.
O’Sullivan controlled the eagerly anticipated contest with world no.1 Mark Selby, while Hawkins took advantage of a lacklustre Mark Allen to advance to the last four for the first time.
The main focus on the fifth day in London surrounded O’Sullivan’s clash with major rival Selby.
The pair had previously met on three occasions at the Masters – all in finals with O’Sullivan twice getting the better of his opponent.
However, their last encounter was in the 2014 World Championship final when the ‘Jester’ had the last laugh in reversing a big deficit to be crowned the Crucible king.
Fans and pundits weren’t sure what to expect for this battle after both emerged from contrasting opening round bouts.
Selby whitewashed Ricky Walden in sublime fashion while O’Sullivan, making his first TV appearance since Sheffield last year, needed to go the distance in ousting Mark Williams.
And while their quarter-final tie certainly lived up to the expectation with regard drama and intrigue, it perhaps wasn’t as close as had been originally predicted.
A lot of that had to do with the polarized level of play that each of the two star names brought to the table.
O’Sullivan’s long potting was scintillating and gifted him the many opportunities that he mostly took advantage of to keep his challenger at bay.
If it wasn’t for a gutsy 56 clearance to pinch the second frame, Selby would have found himself 4-0 down at the interval.
As it was, he was just two frames back and the match looked well and truly alive when the 32 year-old made a 61 break to narrow the gap to just one.
Any hope of a comeback was dismissed, though, as O’Sullivan added an even 100 to his previous runs of 69, 63, 58, 54 and 51 to make it 4-2, before going to within one frame of progressing after claiming the only truly scrappy frame of the affair.
To Selby’s credit he battled in typical fashion and, after a break of 68, it looked as though a further run of 70 would help him back to within just one.
However, the ‘Rocket’ hastily mopped up the remaining balls in a clinical display, clearing with an astounding 73 to get one over on his long-term foe.
Selby wasn’t anywhere near his best but O’Sullivan, at times, looked like a player completely refreshed following his self-inflicted hiatus from the sport – and a very dangerous animal.
That he is still not content with his performances is ominous for the rest of the field, because if the 40 year-old steps up to an even higher gear he will be unstoppable.
It will be interesting to see who emerges from the John Higgins and Stuart Bingham encounter on Friday, with the winner set to face the five-time champion in the last four, because both names will develop an intriguing plot line against O’Sullivan.
If it is Higgins it will continue a rivalry that is more than two decades in the making, while Bingham’s threat would represent an opportunity for O’Sullivan to gain revenge for his defeat to Ballrun in last year’s World Championship.
Despite the fact that Bingham went on to lift the trophy in Sheffield, the form book currently favours the Scot, and it will be Higgins who will be expected to emerge victorious tonight.
Yet, the form book can often go out the window in this prestigious invitation event that boasts only the very elite, as Allen will regretfully testify to.
The Northern Irishman was the big favourite against a player who had only won his first ever match in the tournament this year.
After opening with a century it looked promising for Allen, but it quickly went downhill as a series of errors allowed Hawkins in to gratefully capitalise – eventually coasting to a 6-2 triumph.
It prolongs the wait for a major title for Allen, who turns 30 towards the end of next month.
Hawkins, on the other hand, will be gaining in confidence as he seeks his own maiden major but will surely be aware that his form must continue to improve if he is to prevail in a semi-final clash with either Neil Robertson or Judd Trump.
That mouthwatering duel takes place on Friday afternoon as two of the game’s most prolific break-builders go head-to-head.
Robertson will be the marginal favourite following his recent success but the duo’s record against each other is very even, suggesting that we could be in for a humdinger.
Let’s hope so!