Ronnie O’Sullivan made a successful return to snooker after a year on the sidelines and promised a thrilling ride as he battles to retain his title at the Betfair World Championship.
The four-time champion beat Scotland’s Marcus Campbell 10-4 to set up a second-round clash starting next Saturday against either Ali Carter, the man he beat in last year’s final, or Crucible rookie Ben Woollaston.
There was some early rust in O’Sullivan’s game, which was no great surprise given he has been out of the sport for so long, but he could afford that against a 40-year-old opponent who seemed to freeze in the spotlight.
“Do I fancy my chances of going on and doing really well? Probably not but stranger things have happened, we’ll just have to wait and see,” O’Sullivan said.
“It’s like trying to get fit for the marathon the day before the marathon starts. You’re not going to do it. It’s something that might take three tournaments and a couple of beatings.
“I’ve never been in this position before. It’s as new to me as it is to you. It should be fun watching it though.”
O’Sullivan led 7-2 after the opening session and tonight returned with breaks of 102 and 90 as he sealed his last-16 place.
Since battering Carter to carry off the trophy last year, O’Sullivan has taken a career hiatus that he intended to run longer than it has.
He played just one very low-profile match in the early weeks of the season before announcing in November he would be sitting out the rest of the season. O’Sullivan had a change of heart by February, and this is his first tournament back.
He is not convinced his performance justified his status as the tournament favourite, and despite scoring heavily he suspects there are weakened areas of his game that others may exploit.
“It was all right. The journey has been exciting since I said I was playing, over the last five weeks,” O’Sullivan said.
“I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t sure how the match was going to go, how I’d compete. I’m treating it like an experiment, so we’ll see how it works out.
“In the balls I played okay. The safety wasn’t great and the long potting wasn’t great. In general I probably wasn’t as slick and sharp as usual. But not playing for a year means you lose that match tightness. Playing matches will bring that back.”
Breaks of 82, 62, 71, 85, 86 and 58 before lunch indicated O’Sullivan had been practising as diligently as he has reported.
A raucous reception greeted the 37-year-old as he strode out shortly after 10am, and he responded with some early brush strokes of brilliance as his friend, the artist Damien Hirst, watched on.
O’Sullivan, who began the match by playing a left-handed break-off shot, soon sank four reds and four blacks, and if a maximum 147 break did not enter his mind, it certainly did others.
He took blue off the fifth red, so it would not be a fairytale opening frame, but he still progressed serenely towards what looked sure to be a century.
He reached 82 but missed his next red, thus reducing it to a frame-winning break and nothing more. Not perfect, but remarkably given the circumstances, it was not a world away.
Curiously, Campbell is ranked a place higher than O’Sullivan - 27th to 28th - but that can be explained by the world champion’s inactivity this season.
Any slim hopes Campbell carried into the evening were soon extinguished.
A fluked green helped Campbell make it 9-3, and he clawed his way back to 9-4 to force an interval, but there the recovery ended.
Campbell felt he was “a wee bit unlucky” to lose by six frames.
“I didn’t make many mistakes,” Campbell said. “I’m happy with the way I played. It was a good match to be involved in.”
Campbell expressed caution at the theory that O’Sullivan could make a procession out of the tournament.
“I’m not so sure,” he said. “I played Neil Robertson in China recently and he was every bit as good as that, in different ways.”
Jack Lisowski’s Crucible debut proved anticlimactic as the 21-year-old hot prospect fell 6-3 behind against Kent’s Barry Hawkins.
World number four Shaun Murphy ran into early trouble against qualifier Martin Gould before the 2005 champion dug himself out of trouble to lead 5-4 overnight.
Chester’s Ricky Walden made a break of 140, making him the early frontrunner for the £10,000 top-break prize, in building an 8-1 lead over Nottingham’s Michael Holt.