DEFENDING Players Tour Championship Finals champion Ding Junhui fell at the first hurdle on Tuesday, the victim of an excellent comeback from Ben Woollaston.
It looked very much business as usual for the 26-year-old from China, winner of four ranking titles already this season, when he surged into a 3-0 lead at Preston’s Guildhall.
But Ding, who later complained that he had been feeling unwell, certainly went off the boil and as his level dropped Woollaston’s confidence levels rose with every frame retrieved.
Having got on the board Woollaston saw the world No3 squander chances in the next frame, before failing to obtain a snooker on the blue.
And having levelled the world No28 took early command of the decider and never relinquished his grip, a wild attempted and missed long red from Ding allowed him to clinch victory.
The early exit has another spin-off, as it means Ding will now definitely be seeded No4 at the World Championships, behind Mark Selby, and therefore in Ronnie O’Sullivan’s half of the draw and heading for a possible semi-final match up with the champion.
Ding said: “I wasn’t feeling well out there and it got worse during the match, I had been taking medicine for a sore throat.
“It made it hard to concentrate. I am disappointed to go out in the first round here because you work hard all season to qualify.
“And I have played a lot of matches this season but I won’t be taking time off.
“I will be on the practice table for the rest of the week, with just the China Open in Beijing now before the World Championships.”
It was a big win for the 26-year-old Woollaston, ranked 28th in the world, who moved into the last 16.
He said: “It was embarrassing at 3-0 down but at 3-1 I sensed that he started to miss a couple. It is a big win for me.
“I lost to Ding in Beijing from 4-0 up so it was nice to come back against him. The further I get, the more I will start to believe I can win it.
“I seem to play better and raise my game on the TV table against the big-name players, I wish I could do that in the qualifiers.
“I think the adrenaline and the nerves make me play better. But this will only be a really good result if I make it count and go further.”
John Higgins insisted that the old confidence was flooding back after getting his title bid up and running.
The four-time world champion beat England’s Jimmy Robertson 4-2 on Tuesday – winning the last three frames for victory.
That confirmed signs at the Welsh Open and World Open in China that Higgins, 38, was emerging from a long slump in form.
And the Scottish world No10 was delighted at his timely renaissance – with the World Championships at the Crucible starting in under four weeks’ time.
After reaching the last 16 Higgins said: “Coming here I haven’t really done great in tournaments this season unlike some of the others, but maybe the tables will turn and I can get a run going.
“It wouldn’t be a bad time to find some form with the World Championships next month.
“These were the kind of matches I was losing last year, but in Wales, in Haikou and here I just feel my form is coming back.
“I ran into Mark Allen playing very well in China but that was a great game, and I have come through well against Jimmy after being behind.
“I don’t think Jimmy has played many TV matches if any, but he played well and it was a tough game to get through.
“You can lose matches but when you worry is when you are given the chances and you don’t clear up. I wasn’t doing that, but I have been in recent matches again.”
Anthony Hamilton finally scraped past Sam Baird 4-3 in a marathon match that lasted almost four hours without an interval.
Hamilton, 42, and a professional for 23 seasons, said: “If I had lost that game it would have been straight into my top three or top five all-time disappointing defeats.”
Mark Williams beat Chinese teenager Lyu Haotian 4-1.
Photographs by Monique Limbos