AND SO TO THE last 16 of the China Open, which includes an absolutely brutal top quarter featuring Ding Junhui v Mark Williams and Judd Trump v John Higgins.
It’s hard to pick a semi-finalist from these four but Ding impressed again as he reached the last 16 of a world ranking event for the first time since the Shanghai Masters last September, having faltered in six events in between.
Ding was solid in all areas in beating Mark Davis 5-1 on his 28th birthday. They even played ‘Happy Birthday’ in the arena as he entered, though this is not a first. It was heard in the arena in one of the European Opens in France in the dim and distant past. The difference, though, is that on that occasion it was bleeding through from a party in an adjacent room and the noise put off legendary Australian Eddie Charlton at a crucial moment, though this was thankfully in the days before you could be fined for swearing.
Anyway, Ding is looking good again but has run into Williams, who continues to impress as his great run shows no sign of abating.
Suddenly, the Welshman is looking like a serious contender for the World Championship title he won in 2000 and 2003.
So too is Judd Trump, who rounded off his 5-1 defeat of Peter Ebdon with his 72nd century break of the season. Trump’s disciplined game is reaping great rewards but he doesn’t have the best record against Higgins, who has won eight of their 12 previous meetings.
Higgins of course returned to the game’s winners’ circle at the Welsh Open in February, although he isn’t quite playing the sort of snooker which brought him such success at his peak.
The race for an automatic Crucible seeding continues. Stephen Maguire, Michael White and Robert Milkins all survived deciders to advance to the last 16. Maguire remains favourite for the last seeding place but White and Milkins now play each other so one of them is guaranteed a quarter-final spot.
Yet again, White has been denied a place in front of the TV cameras. It isn’t always straightforward for World Snooker to juggle the various demands which determine televised matches but it is absurd that this new, young star – a recent ranking event winner after all – is being ignored when he’s exactly the sort of player the sport should be foregrounding. He hasn’t played on a TV table since winning the Indian Open.
In two matches – Robin Hull v Kurt Maflin and Dechawat Poomjaeng v Gary Wilson – there is a chance for a player further down the list to reach a quarter-final.
Poomjaeng put the erratic Jack Lisowski to the sword 5-0 while Hull survived a 73 minute decider against Mark King. Wilson has already been a quarter-finalist at the Welsh Open this season while Maflin is rightly highly rated by his fellow players.
Mark Selby, still going despite his neck complaint, tackles Dave Gilbert, a better player than his ranking suggests but not always able to produce the goods on TV.
Barry Hawkins, who has been in the doldrums this season, has had some encouraging wins and made the highest break so far, 138, in booking his last 16 meeting with Stephen Maguire.
And Shaun Murphy – vocal on Twitter about conditions – is always a danger. He faces Jamie Jones, who followed up one good win over Matthew Stevens with another, against Marco Fu.
So an interesting line-up, with that top quarter needing some sorting out. Thursday’s TV matches are Selby v Gilbert and Murphy v Jones in the first session and Ding v Williams and Trump v Higgins in the second.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.