Hopes of home win increase as Ronnie O'Sullivan crashes out
FRIDAY is quarter-final day at the Coral Northern Ireland Open at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast and only a brave man or a fool would have predicted that Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins would be nowhere to be seen.
That is exactly what has transpired though, as Kyren Wilson held off a superb comeback from O'Sullivan to win Thursday night's last-16 encounter 4-3, and Higgins failed to recapture the magic of earlier in the week as Mark Williams comprehensively ended his unbeaten November run, which had seen him win back-to-back titles and cruise into round four here, hitting a maximum 147 along the way.
Whether fatigue caught up with Higgins, only he can tell, but nobody could deny that he was clear second best from the moment he went 1-0 up in Thursday's best-of-seven encounter.
Williams bossed every frame from there to the finish and Higgins, who hadn't dropped a frame in getting past Zhou Yuelong earlier in the day, could muster a mere 46 points in the remaining four frames as the Welshman, 4-2 winner over David Gilbert in round three, completed his victory with back-to-back breaks of 67.
O'Sullivan, meanwhile, had taken under an hour to whitewash Zhang Anda in round three but when he returned to the arena to face Wilson it was a different story as the young Englishman produced some outstanding long potting and a break of 63 in frame three to go 3-0 up.
O'Sullivan, though, suddenly clicked into gear and within half-an-hour breaks of 108, 117 and 126 had forced a deciding frame. In the face of such an onslaught few would have blamed Wilson for caving in, but he showed he's made of stern stuff by compiling a frame-winning 70 under severe pressure to set up his clash with Williams.
And so, while the Belfast public has been denied the chance to watch the two finest exponents of the game for a few days more, on the plus side the odds on a home winner have shortened dramatically.
After round three defeats on Thursday morning for Fergal O'Brien (4-0 v Mark King) and Josh Boileau (4-1 v Kurt Maflin), those hopes now rest with Antrim's Mark Allen.
As the world number 10 began his fourth round match against Gary Wilson on Thursday night, he was the highest ranked player left in the event after world number nine Joe Perry lost a deciding frame to Jack Lisowski in round three earlier in the day.
Allen discovered something close to his best form, for the first time this week, halfway through his third round match against Robin Hull on Thursday afternoon, wrapping up a 4-1 win with back-to-back runs of 87 and 90.
Iranian pro Hossein Vafaei Ayouri reached his first ranking quarter-final with wins yesterday over Sanderson Lam (4-1) and Scott Donaldson (4-2) - who had earlier beaten Peter Ebdon 4-2 - and will face Mark King who followed up his win over O'Brien with a 4-2 victory over Maflin.
FRIDAY'S QUARTER-FINAL LINE-UP
(12pm): Hossein Vafaei Ayouri v Mark King; Kyren Wilson v Mark Williams; Michael White/Dominic Dale v Barry Hawkins/Jack Lisowski; Mark Allen/Gary Wilson v Anthony Hamilton/Yan Bingtao