Ronnie O’Sullivan began his 2018/19 campaign with a 6-3 win over Neil Robertson to complete the Shanghai Masters quarter-final in China on Wednesday.
There had been plenty of anticipation surrounding the 42 year-old’s return to the baize after the best part of half a year away, subsequent to his fiery exit to Ali Carter in the World Snooker Championship in April.
O’Sullivan naturally wasn’t at his absolute best, still getting to grips with the competitive conditions, but his unrivaled natural ability still shone through as he powered past the challenge of the Australian, who took too long to settle.
The “Rocket” captured a record-equalling five ranking trophies last season in what was arguably the best period of his illustrious career and, despite his long absence, he’ll be among the favourites this week under elite conditions that suit his game.
The defending Shanghai Masters champion loves to compete against the very best with huge prize funds and it doesn’t come much bigger than the £200,000 that’s on offer for the champion on Sunday.
O’Sullivan has three matches more to win before he can pocket that cheque, though, with Stuart Bingham first up in Thursday’s last eight.
Bingham compiled a 140 in his opening fixture but received a bye in the last 16 after Shaun Murphy’s late withdrawal due to personal reasons.
The 2015 world champion has only beaten O’Sullivan three times, albeit one of those was en route to his famous success in Sheffield a few seasons ago and he’ll be hoping to take advantage of any rustiness that might still exist in the latter’s game.
The top half of the draw also features the most in-form player at present, with Kyren Wilson set to take on Ryan Day for a semi-final berth.
Wilson is looking to make it a hat-trick of tournament triumphs in succession following his recent glories in the Paul Hunter Classic – his second career ranking title – and the Six Red World Championship in Thailand.
The Kettering cueist made light work of Judd Trump in the last 16 and will undoubtedly be the favourite against Day as he bids to prolong his impressive streak.
Wilson, who was also a Masters finalist last season in addition to making a debut appearance in the last four of the World Snooker Championship, is quickly establishing himself as one of the elite competitors and possesses the kind of all-round game necessary to consistently contend at the business end of tournaments.
Against Day, he comes up against a cueist who has re-established himself as a deserved top 16 member in recent times, thanks in part to the form which brought him a brace of ranking event titles of his own during the last term.
Day held his nerve superbly to produce a timely, and brilliantly crafted, break of 87 to beat John Higgins in a deciding frame to reach the quarter-finals and will fancy his chances of progressing further as he possesses a far superior head-to-head record against WIlson.
Indeed, of their seven meetings, Day has only once been on the losing end and, in fact, hammered his opponent 5-0 the last time they crossed paths en route to victory in the Romanian Masters in March.
Meanwhile, the bottom bracket of the Shanghai Masters quarter-final is equally filled with star pedigree, if not more so.
World champion Mark Williams, already a winner this season in China as well after his success in the World Open, had too much for Anthony McGill and will face Barry Hawkins next after the Englishman matched Williams’ 6-3 scoreline against Stephen Maguire.
Of course, Williams and Hawkins most recently clashed in a gripping semi-final affair at the Crucible that almost went the distance before the former scrambled home amid a bag of nerves, 17-15.
It inflicted a sixth loss out of six on Hawkins from their prior contests so Hawkins will have to do something that he has never done before if he is to extend his stay in the lucrative event.
💬 “If anything, I’m enjoying it too much”
✅ German Masters champ
✅ Northern Ireland Open champ
✅ World Champ
✅ World Open champ
— World Snooker (@WorldSnooker) September 12, 2018
Arguably the tie of the round, though, sees world number one Mark Selby meet home sensation Ding Junhui in what will be a repeat of the 2016 World Championship final.
The pair has actually battled each other in numerous high-profile occasions in the last few years, with Ding gaining his share of the spoils including in this very tournament when he overcame the “Jester” to claim the 2016 Shanghai Masters crown.
If Ding, who finished runner-up to Wilson in the final of the Six Red World Championship last week in Bangkok, can produce anything like the kind of devastating display of scoring he turned out against Mark Allen in the last round then he’ll be a hard player to beat.
Selby, on the other hand, will need to improve drastically and will not want to rely yet again on his label, albeit a deserved one, of being the master of brinkmanship.
Either way, there are another four entertaining showdowns in prospect.