Monday, 25 April 2011

Let's get down to business

It's difficult to complain about the standard of snooker over the opening ten days of this year's World Championship.

But tonight - as the eight quarter-finalists were confirmed - we were spoilt to one of the great sessions at the Crucible venue where both sides of the curtain was loaded with drama.

On one side, Ronnie O'Sullivan showed flashes of brilliance as he continued his trail to beat Shaun Murphy 13-10.

Two centuries made sure the Rocket dazzled on route, but his win was not without drama.

With what seemed an unassailable 12-8 at the interval, Ronnie went on to miss a host of chances to seal the game including the easiest match ball you will ever see. In the same spell, Murphy pulled out a few candidates for shot of the tournament. But even the Magician couldn't repeat a comeback on the scale of his 2007 quarter-final, where he fought back to beat Matthew Stevens from 12-7 adrift.

While O'Sullivan has always been clinical in sight of the winning post, it's not that surprising either that he struggled with that tonight. After all, he's only done it twice now since the back end of September.

Despite his best efforts to let Murphy back in, he did eventually get the job done. His late wobble aside, he looks to be playing and competing well, explaining why his 8/1 odds with the bookmakers have now been slashed to just 4/1 to be crowned world champion.

Any tournament is better off for the participation and application of O'Sullivan, so that's just one reason for us all to wear a smile tonight.

If this wasn't enough drama for one sitting, Ding Junhui was on the other side of the partition making history of his own.

With a good following in Sheffield, he advanced to the last eight at the Crucible for the first time, made possible by a fightback from 12-9 down to win on a dramatic decider.

To think Ding has never been this far in the tournament before is mystifying for a player of such wonderful talent and with two UK titles already under his belt. But he's got a monkey off his back so to speak, and I'm sure we'll be seeing him at this stage of the competition for many more years to come now.

Ding has never been given much credit in the comeback stakes. But this mighty effort means his temperament can never be called into question again.

While I'm delighted for Ding and his army of Chinese fans, you have to feel for his opponent.

A win for Bingham - which at one stage looked a formality - would have also earned him his first quarter-final in Sheffield and as well as his maiden spell in the top 16 of the world rankings. That will hurt him. But he's had a great season, and more than played his part in one of the greatest Crucible matches I've ever watched.

Also progressing to the last eight of the championship today was the former and new title favourite. John Higgins began the round as the bookmakers choice. But after a laboured final session against Rory McLeod today, he's drifted out from the top price.

The three-time winner still won the match 13-7 but his form was left wanting. It's good news the title isn't won in the first week - maybe he's saving his best for his last.

While John will now have to answer a couple of questions, Rory predictably came in for plenty more stick today. I'll admit he's one of the tougher players to watch but a lot of the stick he's endured this week is unfair. Whatever people say, he's had a great week, which has seen him win his first ever TV match. He can hold his head high.

Higgins has been replaced as favourite by record-breaker Mark Selby. The former finalist became the first ever player to make six century breaks in one match at the Crucible as he beat Stephen Hendry 13-4.

In the kind of glittering form that saw him reach the China Open final earlier this month, he's coming to the boil perfectly.

His century haul here also means he's now made more centuries in a single season than any other player before. That record deserves saluting, but was helped by the fact there's been more matches than ever this season as well.

Selby is now the 11/4 favourite to lift the trophy - and you can see why on this showing.

Hendry on the other hand has just about clung onto his top 16 status, owing to Bingham's defeat. But that hasn't stopped the rumour mill suggesting he'll be hanging up his cue before start of the new season. In his press conference today, he said he needs time to think about it. But I'm guessing his retirement is fairly likely.

Hendry has always been a born winner. But having made it to a ranking event quarter-final just once in the last two seasons, it's questionable he still has what it takes to win titles. Because of this, it could signal the end.

That means the all-time Crucible King may have played his last ever match at the venue. Of course, that's a great shame. But times do change and he'll be remembered as the greatest of them all.

If I'm honest, it's probably worse to watch him struggling so badly on the baize these days, than to watch him walk away.

Not a bad day all-in-all. But tomorrow, we'll be ready to go again. Into the last eight, it's down to the business end.

This year's World Championship has sparked into life. Tighten up. This just got serious.

Quarter-final draw: Mark Williams v Mark Allen; Mark Selby v Ding Junhui; Ronnie O'Sullivan v John Higgins; Graeme Dott v Judd Trump

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