You don’t have to be a snooker anorak to recognise that the stand-out match in the quarter-finals of the BetVictor Welsh Open at Newport today is John Higgins v Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Even the players themselves have succumbed to hype. Higgins described it as “the biggest match in snooker” while O’Sullivan compared it to Chelsea v Manchester City.
But this isn’t really hype, it’s reality. What these two great players have is not the potential of what’s to come but the fact of what has happened. Between them they have won 50 world ranking titles – 25 each – including nine World Championship titles.
Higgins and O’Sullivan are, quite simply, the two most successful players of this century. They each possess an aura of greatness earned through achievement.
O’Sullivan leads the individual head-to-head 27-23. Even so, nobody has beaten him more times than Higgins.
The Scot took the credit yesterday for O’Sullivan pushing on and winning more world titles as he thought Ronnie wouldn’t want to end his career behind him on this score.
Whatever the truth of that, there is genuine respect between these two 38 year-olds, who grew up together on the then thriving UK junior scene and cut a swathe through the old order in the professional game. Whenever they play, wherever they play, it’s a match to savour.
First up, though, it’s the biggest match of Joel Walker’s relatively new professional career when he faces Ding Junhui.
Walker was talent spotted by O’Sullivan as a 16 year-old when he received mentoring from the Rocket as part of the Riley Future Stars scheme. Now in his second season on the tour, the 19 year-old has kicked on from a low key debut campaign and his results of late have been really encouraging.
This underlines the value of one of the best things the Barry Hearn regime has done – and it’s done many. Giving new players a two-year tour card gives them the chance to find their feet and get used to the cut-throat nature of professional sport. The game has lost too many young talents in their first seasons.
Ding will of course be favourite as he continues his serene progress through a season which has already seen him capture four world ranking titles. The added factor of television cameras will make him an even bigger favourite but for Walker this match is a reward for his hard work and application. I hope he enjoys it, whatever the result.
Tonight, Mark Selby faces Joe Perry, who beat him 4-0 in an early round at Newport last year. Selby has been effective without being outstanding so far. He’s got the job done and nobody has got close to him.
Perry meanwhile survived a dramatic decider against Stuart Bingham yesterday but the reprieved man, subconsciously believing he should be out, is frequently a dangerous specimen in snooker.
The non-televised quarter-final tonight pits Marco Fu against Barry Hawkins, who will rise to fourth in the world rankings if he wins, a sign of just how he has pushed on in the last two years.
BBC2 Wales (and red button): 1-4.50pm; 7-7.30pm; 10-10.30pm; 12.35-1.15am (GMT)
British Eurosport2: 1-5pm (GMT)
British Eurosport: 7-10pm (GMT)
Eurosport2: 2-5pm (CET)
Eurosport International: 6.45-11pm (CET)
Photographs by Monique Limbos.