Ronnie O’Sullivan and Ding Junhui became the first two players to book their spots in the Masters semi-final on Thursday in London.
The pair emerged from contrasting battles to set up a repeat of their 2007 final against one another.
O’Sullivan, like in his opening encounter against Stuart Bingham, began slowly before shifting through the gears to inflict a 6-3 defeat on Welshman Ryan Day.
The latter, looking to reach a Masters semi-final for the first time in his career, led 2-1 and enjoyed parity again at 3-3, but O’Sullivan ultimately reeled off five out of the last six frames with a succession of big breaks for victory.
Ding’s tie against Belgium’s Luca Brecel was much more dramatic and arguably represented the match of the tournament so far.
While Brecel’s 6-5 triumph over defending champion Mark Allen in the last 16 boasted an impressively high-standard from both players, this quarter-final tie added to that with the inclusion of some serious drama.
None more so than in the ninth frame when Ding, who had just fired in his second century to even the scores at 4-4, inexplicably forfeited the frame courtesy of falling foul to the three-miss rule.
But Brecel, still just 23 and making only his second appearance at the Alexandra Palace, failed to capitalise and in the end couldn’t handle the pressure with the winning line in sight.
Ding duly recovered to avoid what would have been an uncomfortable post-match dissection of his glaring mishap, constructing timely runs of 57 and 65 to advance to only his third Masters semi-final.
In the last four, it’s a match-up then between two of the sport’s biggest global superstars and what a mouthwatering prospect it is too.
All logic would suggest that O’Sullivan, bidding for an unprecedented eighth title in a single Triple Crown tournament, represents the heavy favourite.
Yet, Ding has an opportunity to turn around a poor campaign and perhaps instigate a long overdue return to top form.
Twelve years ago at the Wembley Arena, O’Sullivan had to console a tearful Ding after a chastening defeat in the final left the 19 year-old with his first mental scar to recover from.
The 10-3 loss was difficult enough to handle – Ding, at one stage so disillusioned with what was going on, thought it was the best of 17 and offered his hand in defeat – but the level of abuse that the then teenager received from sections of the one-sided crowd was scandalous.
It took a while but, in the decade since, Ding has matured greatly and, in addition, is probably one of the most-liked players not only in China, but also in the UK too.
There has always been a bit of a Jimmy White about him – so talented, so adored, and so desperate to succeed that it can sometimes be to his detriment.
Like the “Whirlwind”, Ding has emerged triumphantly in both the Masters and the UK Championship but has failed to collect silverware in the big one at Sheffield.
Bagging a second Masters crown and overcoming O’Sullivan in the process could be just the tonic Ding needs to proceed with his challenge at the Crucible more confidently.
Easier said than done.
These days, there seems to be an even bigger aura of invincibility surrounding the “Rocket”.
The 43 year-old reached the final in more than half of the tournaments he contested in 2018 – winning five titles – and is utterly dominant in competitions that feature only the very elite.
O’Sullivan may have suffered a surprise reverse against Allen in last year’s quarter-final but in general the Masters is his turf.
This is the Englishman’s 14th Masters semi-final in 25 appearances in the prestigious invitational and he has claimed the winners’ cheque in three out of the last five editions.
Against Ding, he naturally holds the upper hand in terms of their head-to-head record with victories in almost two-thirds of their previous meetings.
Ding’s standout success in more recent times occurred in the 2017 World Championship when he ousted O’Sullivan in the quarter-finals.
Some thought that might be a turning point in their duels but it’s been business as usual since and O’Sullivan hammered Ding in last year’s World Grand Prix final.
It almost goes without saying that Ding needs to start well because if he falls even a couple of frames adrift at the beginning, it’s game over.
But like Judd Trump in the bottom half of the draw, this is Ding’s time to start accumulating more major honours and his quest to achieve that begins with the sternest test of them all.
Trump, meanwhile, faces Mark Selby and Neil Robertson entertains Barry Hawkins in Friday’s remaining last eight fixtures that will determine the second Masters semi-final.