John Higgins will be the red hot favourite for the Welsh Open title after a resounding 5-1 victory over Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Motorpoint Arena on Friday.
The Scot lost the opening frame to his in-form rival, who was bidding for a record-equalling fifth ranking event success in a single season, but responded brilliantly with a brace of centuries and further runs of 60 and 57 to outclass the UK champion.
A key moment came in the last frame before the mid-session interval with Higgins leading by just the odd frame.
It looked as though O’Sullivan was going to square the contest up at two frames apiece only to go in-off with the white while clearing up the colours.
Higgins, himself in search of a record fifth Welsh Open crown, capitalised to record his second successive victory over O’Sullivan in Home Nations series events.
The 42 year-old advances to the semi-finals in Wales for the seventh time in his career and he’s never before lost at this stage of the competition.
The former world number one has admitted that reaching the milestone of 30 ranking event triumphs weighs heavily on his immediate ambitions in the game but he’ll hardly have a better opportunity than this weekend to achieve the feat and, in doing so, narrow the gap to O’Sullivan and Stephen Hendry ahead of him in the all-time champions’ list.
A lot has been made of O’Sullivan’s form over the last six months and rightly so, but Higgins deserves plenty of plaudits as well for his ability to consistently hang around at the very highest echelons of the sport, and of course he has already tasted the winning sensation this season after his Indian Open triumph last summer.
The four-time world champion will meet Gary Wilson, one of two surprise semi-finalists, next with a berth in Sunday’s showdown for the £70,000 winner’s cheque at stake.
Wilson, a former China Open runner-up with not much else on his CV, produced a stunning display to knock out Yu Delu courtesy of a hat-trick of century breaks – including a terrific 140 total clearance in the fifth frame of his 5-2 defeat of the Chinese.
Higgins and Wilson have met on only two occasions and the latter did actually manage to beat the “Wizard of Wishaw” in their most recent affair at the Northern Ireland Open last year.
However, there’s a big difference between a win over a shorter distance in the early rounds of a tournament and the semi-final stage of the third longest running ranking event, contested in the single table set-up.
Higgins will undoubtedly be a huge favourite to go through over the best of eleven frames and it would be a pretty big shock if Wilson was to upset the odds in the Welsh capital.
Meanwhile, the other clash on Saturday sees Barry Hawkins face a last four newbie in Thailand’s Noppon Saengkham.
Hawkins, who has suffered a forgettable campaign up until now that was highlighted by his failure to qualify for the defence of his World Grand Prix crown last week in Preston, reached this latterly stage for the first time since last year’s World Championship thanks to an assured 5-1 thumping of Yan Bingtao.
The fixture had been expected to be a close battle but the teenager was never at the races and Hawkins duly punished the young Chinese with big centuries of 141 and 137, as well as additional breaks of 74 and 60.
Realistically, Hawkins represents the biggest threat to Higgins lifting the Welsh Open trophy again but will first have to dispatch of the threat of Saengkham, who has enjoyed a breakthrough week on the Main Tour.
The 25 year-old, a former winner of the World Under-21 Championship, withstood a late charge from Ian Burns to prevail in their quarter-final tie 5-3.
Saengkham, who had seen his opponent fight back from 4-1 down to trail by just one frame at 4-3, demonstrated his inexperience when he foolishly went for a maximum attempt, that soon after went awry, instead of following the straightforward course of wrapping up the frame and match.
Thankfully for him, Burns wasn’t able to take advantage and Saengkham progressed to move just two victories away from becoming the first Thai since the great James Wattana to claim a ranking event title.
Saengkham appears to have his work cut out for him, though, as in two previous duels with Hawkins he has walked away with just a solitary frame.
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