Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins will meet in a Welsh Open quarter-final clash that has all the makings of being a winner-takes-all encounter in Cardiff on Friday.
The high-profile duo comfortably emerged from their two rounds on Thursday with a brace of whitewash victories each to set up a sixth battle of the season against one another.
With a depleted field remaining throughout the rest of the draw after numerous seeded casualties in the early stages of the tournament this week, O’Sullivan and Higgins will be well aware that a triumph over one their biggest foes would represent a giant leap towards lifting the trophy on Sunday.
Indeed, the pair has enjoyed a love affair of sorts in the past with the Welsh Open, the third longest running ranking event on the calendar, with each having tasted glory a record four times.
O’Sullivan, of course, is bidding not only for a record fifth title in Wales but also a record-equalling fifth ranking event of a single campaign after a stellar season that has seen him also collect silverware in the English Open, Shanghai Masters, UK Championship, and last week’s World Grand Prix in Preston.
The “Rocket” will undoubtedly start his contest with Higgins as the favourite and has four previous triumphs over the Scot to recall upon from this term already, but the latter did prevail in their last duel – a 5-0 drubbing at this same stage of the Scottish Open in December.
In the kind of form that O’Sullivan has been displaying over the last week or so, it appears apparent that Higgins will have to be at his very best but the 42 year-old did muster an excellent tournament-high 144 against veteran Nigel Bond in the last 16 so is clearly cueing well himself and will always be up for the challenge of facing his fellow “Class of 1992” member.
In fact, between them the duo has compiled nine centuries in this event so there’s every indication that this latest chapter in their long saga alongside one another could live up to every expectation.
It’s difficult to see where the main threat to O’Sullivan or Higgins is going to come from in the remainder of this competition but one would probably immediately look to the opposite side of the draw and the contest between Barry Hawkins and Yan Bingtao.
Hawkins, who failed to qualify for the defence of his 2017 World Grand Prix title last week following a dismal period on the Main Tour, is into the quarter-finals of a ranking event for the first time this season after hard-fought wins against Fang Xiongman and Martin Gould.
The 38 year-old will meet a young Chinese opponent 20 years his junior for a berth in the last four after Yan impressed again with defeats of former major champions Peter Ebdon and Matthew Stevens – the latter ending home interests in Wales.
Hawkins and Yan have met only once before, a tight Wuxi Classic encounter from four years ago that went the distance, but Yan is a much more advanced competitor compared to even then and will represent a stern challenge for the Englishman.
Yan only narrowly missed out on becoming the youngest ever ranking event winner in the second Home Nations series event in Northern Ireland, agonisingly falling short in a decider against Mark Williams, but will surely fancy his chances of at least a return to another final this week.
To say that the other two quarter-final fixtures are a surprise would be one of the understatements of the year so far and there’s a huge opportunity for a couple of lower ranked pros to mount a rare challenge in the business end of an important tournament.
Ian Burns, ranked number 99 in the world rankings, and Thailand’s Noppon Saengkham clash in what will be just their second appearance each at this stage of a ranking event.
In Higgins and O’Sullivan’s half, meanwhile, former China Open runner-up Gary Wilson will take on Yu Delu after the pair yesterday recorded excellent victories over Mark Allen and Liang Wenbo respectively.
While the finalists seem most likely to come from the other four contenders, it will be interesting to see how this mostly inexperienced quartet can handle the pressure of all being in the title mix together so late in proceedings.