TWO BECOMES ONE as the Crucible arena is transformed for the semi-finals, with one table, four players and five more days to decide who becomes 2015 Betfred world champion.
Shaun Murphy will play Barry Hawkins in the first of the semis with Judd Trump taking on Stuart Bingham in the other after a dramatic concluding day of quarter-final action in Sheffield.
The last to finish was Hawkins, who won a bona fide Crucible thriller to beat Neil Robertson 13-12. This match set a new record for a best of 25, with eight centuries as Hawkins once again proved his worth in the two-table set-up, reaching the semi-finals for the third year running.
The Kent man has not enjoyed the best of seasons but has now toughed through three very close matches to take his place again in the semi-finals. He stayed with Robertson all night, producing the kind of world class snooker required to win matches of this quality.
Despite a world final and semi-final, not to mention two ranking titles and occupancy of fifth spot in the rankings, Hawkins is still underrated by some but has once again earned his place in the latter stages of the sport’s biggest event. This is clearly no accident.
Murphy put paid to the Anthony McGill fairytale, pulling away in the final session to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2009.
The key to Murphy’s success in this match was the positive attitude he displayed during the interval of Tuesday night’s second session. He was tied at 6-6 with McGill, who seemed to be in control of the tactical exchanges.
Murphy kept his discipline to win the last before the interval and then put together three excellent frames to lead 9-6. This broke McGill’s momentum and gave the former champion breathing space before he completed a 13-8 victory on Monday afternoon.
Murphy was asked about emulating Alex Higgins, who won the world title ten years apart in 1972 and 1982. “I’d rather have done it four years after the first,” he said, having been runner-up to John Higgins in 2009.
Murphy is playing the same fiercely effective attacking game which took him to the title in 2005. He played this way to win the Masters three months ago and has been determined to stick to it at the Crucible.
Trump’s performance in sweeping aside Ding Junhui 13-4 was magnificent. So accurate was Trump’s potting and – just as importantly – so effective was his tactical game that in the first six frames Ding had just one clear-cut chance, which was complicated by being on a possible 147.
From 6-0 down, with Trump’s confidence sky-high, it was always going to be difficult to recover. Yes Ding made mistakes too, but this was due to the pressure Trump had put him under.
Trump, as we noted pre-tournament, has had a very consistent season in which his scoring his been impressive. He made four more centuries against Ding to take his tally for the campaign to 79.
I thought Trump’s post-match comments were spot on: “If I continue to play like this I won’t get beaten but to keep up the same level for another five days would be extremely hard.”
He’s right because he’s only actually halfway through this marathon, having racked up 36 frames thus far with 35 still to be won. But he is cueing superbly and exudes that all important quantity at the Crucible, self belief.
But such is the strange psychology of snooker that he is under a particular pressure against Bingham that he would not have had against O’Sullivan, namely as a big favourite.
Defeat to a five-time world champion most regard as the best player ever would have been a disappointment but no disgrace. It would of course be no disgrace either to lose to a fluent ranking event winner such as Bingham but Trump knows this is a great chance.
O’Sullivan fans will of course lament his exit but those within the sport who know Bingham will be delighted for him. He has a pure love for snooker the game, for playing it, for being part of it.
Bingham shed a tear after phoning his wife in the immediate moments after completing the win. To play in the one-table set-up at the Crucible is a boyhood dream come true.
“I’m so looking forward to it,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll sleep tonight. I’ll be nervous as hell but I’ve enjoyed walking out there all week and I’m striking the ball well.”
Nice guys sometimes do finish first. Bingham is a little like Joe Johnson in 1986: well liked, unassuming but competitive and as deadly as anyone when in form. He cheerfully describes himself as the underdog and is happy to be it as long as he’s still in the tournament.
He took the game to O’Sullivan in the final session with five half centuries from 9-8 down. He beat Trump in the 2012 Premier League final and has been consistent these past few years, cementing his place in the top 16 with ranking and other titles to his name.
Murphy v Trump will be many people’s tip for the final but both Bingham and Hawkins are more than capable of spoiling that particular party.
For Hawkins, he will have little time to recover for Thursday afternoon’s first session; Bingham must also contain the inevitable excitement he will feel for one of the biggest matches of his career.
But they’re all under pressure. It’s all on the line now. Just four players remain as the fight for the championship approaches its end.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.