DEFENDING champion Ding Junhui crashed out of the BGC Masters despite a battling comeback against crowd favourite Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Four-time Masters champion O’Sullivan looked a comfortable winner against Chinese cueman Junhui - whom he crushed 10-3 in the 2007 Masters final which reduced his opponent to tears - as he surged into a commanding 4-1 lead at the Alexandra Palace.
Breaks of 76 and 62 did the bulk of the damage before Ding, who lives and practices in Sheffield, rallied and levelled at 4-4 by winning three frames on the spin with a top run of 59 to set up an exciting finish.
But it was O’Sullivan who kept his hopes alive of a fifth Masters crown thanks to breaks of 51 and 125 to clinch a deserved victory.
“Ding is a great player, so I was very pleased to get the result,” admitted O’Sullivan. “We both missed a few balls, but I stayed relaxed after he pulled back to 4-4 from 4-1 up.
“A good player was going to go out, but that is the Masters and the way the draw was.”
O’Sullivan now faces either snooker’s latest hot prospect Judd Trump or Stuart Bingham, this season’s Australian Open winner, in the quarter-finals on Thursday.
An understandably dejected Ding said: “I didn’t feel I was concentrating at all, and neither of us played well. I have been back in China for a while, and miss it when I am away.
“I will now be going back for Chinese New Year on January 23 to spend it with my friends and family.”
As an invitational event, the Masters carries no world ranking points, so nothing O’Sullivan achieves in the coming week will have an effect on his position.
He currently stands 16th, in real danger of being knocked out of the elite pack of players for the first time since the start of his career. He must be in the top 16 after next month’s Welsh Open, or face having to play a qualifying match to reach the Crucible.
“I know I’m not ready for the qualifiers,” O’Sullivan said. “I know I’m too good to be playing the qualifiers and that’s not being big-headed.”
But O’Sullivan will not put his personal life on hold for the sake of an automatic place in the World Championship, or any other tournament.
He was convinced to play on after sessions with sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, having threatened to quit snooker a year ago.
“I was ready to retire last year. At this time last year I’d made my mind up,” O’Sullivan said. “Then I met Steve Peters and I didn’t want him really to be able to help me.
“But he has, and I’ve been working with him and I’ve had a couple of blips along the way.”