Ronnie O’Sullivan’s dramatic deciding-frame defeat at the hands of Barry Hawkins late on Monday night threw the destination of this year’s trophy into an eight-way melting pot.
With the Rocket’s bid for a sixth world title ended, despite a barrage of big breaks and an onslaught that Hawkins did so well to withstand, everyone left in will, or certainly should, fancy their chances ahead of their quarter-final matches.
And it brings to mind the famous words uttered by football commentator Brian Moore, as Michael Thomas broke through to score the title-winning goal for Arsenal at Liverpool in 1989.
O’Sullivan followed Neil Robertson and Judd Trump out of the event, meaning the top three in the pre-tournament betting have gone. Throw in defending champion Stuart Bingham, Shaun Murphy , Stephen Maguire and Mark Allen and many possible winners have gone home.
The sponsors of the Betfred World Championship made four-time winner JohnHiggins the new favourite at the start of play on Tuesday – principally because he is a proven course and distance winner, and has found some form in the past 16 months.
Also few were giving Alan McManus much of a chance in their all-Scottish encounter, practically assuming the 40-year-old would be in the semi-finals.
McManus has taken advantage of lacklustre displays from Maguire and Ali Carter, but you imagine that Higgins over the best-of-25 frames could be too much.
The other three quarter-finals are expected to be won by world No1 Mark Selby against Kyren Wilson, Ding Junhui against Mark Williams, and Barry Hawkins against Marco Fu.
Selby arrived in Sheffield under the radar after missing two tournaments to try and stay fresh, and has largely stayed there following two unconvincing displays against Rob Milkins and Sam Baird. The thing with Selby is know he can get better.
And he may well have to against rising star Wilson. There have been echoes of Murphy’s run back in 2005 in the way the 24-year-old has tackled the challenge this year. Surfing a wave of confidence buoyedhis breakthrough Shanghai Masters win, Wilson is a dangerous opponentfor Selby and a shock is certainly possible if the Leicester Jester does not raise his level.
Ding dropped just seven frames in three best-of-19 qualifiers, which meant he arrived without any fatigue and far less pressure and expectation than in previous years. Beating Trump was a huge win, and certainly in his post-match press conference Ding was saying he could now win a first world title, words he has been too timid to utter in the past.
Ding is as good or better a player than any bar possibly O’Sullivan and Robertson in the modern game, and if he has added via Terry Griffiths some mental strength then he is a formidable contender and a likely semi-final opponent for Higgins.
To get there he has to beat two-time champion Mark Williams, and while Ding is the favourite Williams can beat anyone on his day. It is getting harder for him to sustain it over longer matches, but his focus for this match could not be questioned, going into a media lockdown.
And then there is Hawkins. The 2013 runner-up has reached the single table at the Crucible in each of the last three years, and he just seems to be a player and media alike have difficulty linking with the word ‘favourite’. But maybe they should be.
The turnaround from the 10-1 thrashing at O’Sullivan’s hands at the Masters final, to the thrilling 13-12 victory on Monday night, was astonishing, and the win fully deserved. Hawkins is again not strongly fancied to beat Fu, and that encounter may lack a little stardust, but opportunity is now knocking for them and everyone else left in the draw.
Predicted semi-final line-up:
John Higgins v Ding Junhui
Mark Selby v Barry Hawkins
Photograph courtesy of Monique Limbos