Saturday is semi-finals day at the Dafabet Masters – and the line-up is strong, intriguing and contains various sub-plots as the remaining quartet vies for glory and the £200,000 first prize.
The afternoon contest will feature Judd Trump and Barry Hawkins, and after his terrific quarter-final victory and display over Neil Robertson this is exactly the kind of match where the Juddernaut can get caught out after a barnstorming performance.
Robertson arrived in London as the season’s in-form player, having won the Champion of Champions and then the UK Championship in December. In his own words, “It was going to take someone playing out of their skin to beat me this week”.
But it was almost as if Trump took that as a personal challenge as he rattled in four centuries in a record-breaking total of six for a best-of-11 frame match, one of the greatest seen in this famous tournament’s illustrious history.
World No5 Trump, though, is at a stage in his career when he needs to make these extraordinary performances count with trophies, and he knows it. The collapse against Liang Wenbo at the UK, losing 6-4 from 4-1 up, clearly stung him more than any previous defeat and he responded by practicing like a demon over Christmas.
Hawkins, incredibly, had never won a Masters match before this year. Anyone tempted to overlook his chances or underrate his ability need only looks at his record at the last three world championships – final, semi-final, semi-final.
Trump will deservedly be favourite, but the days of Hawkins being an easier draw at the latter stages of a major event are long gone, and he will punish any errors from the 26-year-old, and capitalise on any dip in performance level.
Then in the evening Ronnie O’Sullivan, back on the big stage after his latest eight-month sabbatical last year, has the chance for some revenge over reigning world champion Stuart Bingham.
Bingham, who took full advantage of a totally out of sorts John Higgins on Friday night, beat the Rocket in the quarter-finals at the Crucible last year en route to his debut world title.
Five-time Masters winner O’Sullivan said with a smile this week “I probably owe Stuart one”, and Bingham, like Hawkins, is someone none of the bigger names will ever take lightly ever again.
O’Sullivan loves everything about this tournament. The single table set-up, the atmosphere, the huge partisan crowd in his corner, and the proximity to his Essex home. The usual celebrity posse can be expected in his corner.
Bingham is one of the nicest and most genuine people on the tour. He insists he is just happy to be there, playing the best player in the world on such a huge stage with a good few coming to support him from Basildon.
But no one content only with taking part could have enjoyed the success Bingham enjoyed last season. There is a new confidence against the best players now, and much like the other semi-final, any faltering from favourite O’Sullivan will be leapt on.
Bingham by his own admission has struggled with some of the pressures, expectations and distractions that come with being world champion this season, but at the Masters the spotlight has been on others, and he has looked very relaxed.
Two great matches in prospect – bring it on.
Photograph courtesy of Monique Limbos
To this I’ll add just one thing: Ronnie will play his 62th match at the Masters tonight, setting a new record. At the time of writing he’s tied with Jimmy White at 61.