I have to admit, the arena looked absolutely beautiful. The first four days of the prestigious event decided who would survive to play the semifinals. Each day, four players engaged in two best-of-7 matches. The winners would play again later the same day, but this time a best-of-11.
The first best-of-7 match had the defending champion up against World Seniors champion Jimmy White. Niel Robertson had no trouble defeating his opponent 4-0 scoring heavily. The Aussie made breaks of 101, 115, 81 and 59.
The next match was between John Higgins and Ding Junhui. Higgins built a 2-0 lead, Ding tied the match, Higgins took the lead again and Ding won the sixth frame to force a decider. The Scottish missed a long red, which gave the Chinese a chance. Ding only managed to score 19 points before allowing his opponent back to the table. Higgins missed a black off its spot after scoring 51 points and that was all Ding needed to win the match with a frame winning break.
Later that day, Niel Robertson and Ding Junhui battled for a place in the semis. The Chinese won the first frame and Niel Robertson fought back with a total clearance of 139 (his third century of the day). And then a sequence of unforced errors made by both players followed. The match was tied at the mid-session interval. In frame 5, Niel Robertson made his fourth century of the day to lead 3-2. The Aussie won the next frame with a break of 62 and Ding pulled two frames back to level the match at 4-4. Niel Robertson won the next couple of frames to book his place in the semis.
Judd Trump beat Stuart Bingham 4-0. Trump was far from his best, but Bingham was even worse. The current Masters champion had many opportunities to score, but it was not to be. As for the highlights of the match: a century break in frame 3 and a break of 63 in frame 4, both made by Trump.
David Gilbert and Shaun Murphy played next. Gilbert started the day with a break of 107 and a break of 83 to win the first couple of frames. Needless to say, the standard was way higher than the previous match. Gilbert built a 3-0 lead and Murphy finally pulled one frame back (with a break of 78) to avoid a whitewash. In frame 5, Murphy missed a black off the spot, but Gilbert failed to take advantage of it. Murphy ended up winning the frame with a break of 77, but the comeback ended there; Gilbert won the following frame with a break of 88.
And the winners were back at the table. David Gilbert missed a ball that he should never have missed, and Trump punished him with a century break to win the first frame. Gilbert responded by winning the second frame and Trump gifted him the third frame by missing the final pink. After that Trump started scoring heavily, making century after century: 117 in frame 4, 112 in frame 5, 107 in frame 8 and 138 in frame 9 for a 6-3 win. Remarkable!
Mark Selby progressed to the quarter-finals by defeating Luca Brecel 4-2. The Belgian made breaks of 71 and 79 to win the first and fifth frames while Selby made a single 50+ break in frame 3. Kyren Wilson and Stephen Maguire were up next. Kyren drew first blood and made breaks of 59 and 72 to lead 2-0. Maguire made a break of 76 to win his first frame and Kyren responded with breaks of 77 and 130 to win the last couple of frames and the match.
Kyren outplayed Selby and went to the mid-session interval with a 4-0 lead. All stats favored Kyren: safety play, pot success, etc. But then Selby dug deep and won 3 frames on the trot. In fact, Selby almost won the next frame, but Kyren ended up extending his lead to 5-3 with the help of a fluke. The ninth frame was lengthy. Kyren needed a snooker twice, and twice he got it. But Selby refused to let go and won the frame. As one would expect from Selby, he won the next two frames and the match – a defeat that will give Kyren a lot to think about.
Ronnie O'Sullivan played a bad break-off shot hitting the blue. Michael Holt took advantage of that and made a break of a 107. O'Sullivan tied the match with a break of 65. Another bad break-off shot gave Holt a chance, but he missed a red to the middle pocket and was punished with a break of 86. Starting with a very good long pot, O'Sullivan won the fourth frame with a break of 71. Breaks of 49 and 87 gave O'Sullivan a 4-1 win. His stats: 100% long pot success (9 out of 9) and 96% pot success.
Scott Donaldson started the day with a break of 65 against Mark Allen. Allen leveled the match with a break of 64 and Donaldson won the third frame on the black. Allen leveled once again. Donaldson took the lead once more and Allen took the match to a decider, which he won with a century break.
O'Sullivan and Allen battled for the last spot in the semis. Allen drew first blood and O'Sullivan reversed the situation with breaks of 79 and 91. Allen leveled the match with his second century of the day. O'Sullivan won the fifth frame and Allen made another century to tie. The Northern Irishman was on a maximum in that frame, but missed the 14th red. O'Sullivan played bad safety shots in frames 6 and 7, which allowed Allen to win both frames and establish a 5-3 lead. And then we saw that infamous incident in frame 9: annoyed and out of patience, The Rocket launched a verbal attack at his opponent, accusing him of staying in his eyeline. It's sad to see The Rocket involved in episodes such as this. As a fan, I'd rather think of him as a gifted player than as a troublemaker. Allen delivered the final blow with a break of 66.
Friday. Mark Selby was up against the defending champion Niel Robertson. The Aussie was playing catch-up, being always one frame behind. Selby was in scoring mood, making a total clearance of 131 to lead for the third time at 3-2. Niel was scoring heavily as he normally is, so the standard was excepionally high. It seems that the conditions were very good, too. Robertson leveled the match for the third time, and then came the centuries which have made this match immortal for snooker fans... Selby made a clearance of 137 to lead again and Robertson made two centuries of his own (141 and 121) to steal the lead. Selby made the sixth century of the match (137) to force a decider. It's a shame there had to be a loser, and that was Selby.
On Saturday, Mark Allen took the first frame with a break of 102, stole the second and further extended his lead by winning the third, the lengthy fourth frame, and the fifth. Trump averted a whitewash with a break of 80 in the sixth frame, but lost frame 7. Whatever trace of anger Allen had left in him after the exchange with O'Sullivan, he surely put it to good use. It's true that Trump was struggling, but even then, no one could have predicted a 6-1 win for Allen. I still believe Robertson is a strong favorite to retain his title, but that doesn't mean it's going to be easy for the Aussie.
Featured images credit: wst.tv