Barry Hawkins was rising to the challenge of his first Betfair World Championship final tonight as he and Ronnie O’Sullivan produced a high-class show at the Crucible.
From 5-3 behind going into the evening, Hawkins drew level at 7-7 and the underdog was looking to have shed the early nerves that affected him.
The 34-year-old world number 14 from Kent fired in back-to-back breaks of 83 and 133 to give O’Sullivan plenty to think about in the closing three frames of the session.
The reaction from O’Sullivan to the encroaching danger was instantaneous and dazzling as he fired in 103 and 106 to surge ahead again at 9-7.
After runs of 113 and 100 this afternoon, O’Sullivan has taken a place in snooker’s record books as the player with the most World Championship centuries, edging two ahead of Stephen Hendry’s total of 127.
He is also bidding to become the first player since Hendry in 1996 to successfully defend the title in Sheffield.
Were Hawkins to lift the trophy tomorrow evening, it would rank as surely the greatest upset in a World Championship final since Joe Johnson beat Steve Davis in 1986.
There was a long way to go in the best-of-35-frames final though before 80-1 pre-tournament outsider Hawkins could start to think of lifting the trophy tomorrow night, but the level of his performance was defying widespread expectations that O’Sullivan would cruise to a fifth world title.
For the first time in the tournament, O’Sullivan has trailed in a match.
But from 3-2 behind this afternoon he powered in a 76 and his two early centuries.
If this is to prove his final World Championship, as he has suggested, O’Sullivan would like to leave more great memories before bowing out.
With spectators on their feet, O’Sullivan had been roared into the arena for both sessions.
Many in the crowd had come in the expectation of an O’Sullivan masterclass, willing him to dominate, but Hawkins, in the biggest match of his life, had no such inclination.
In the afternoon Hawkins made an 88 break and followed it with an exquisite 81, when with the black and pink unavailable he adeptly piled on the points by repeatedly going up for the blue.
Coached by the 1979 world champion, Terry Griffiths, Hawkins was able to call on the Welshman’s expertise and experience in the intervals.
O’Sullivan had an issue about the cloth on the table, grumbling to himself and querying the state of the baize with tournament officials.
Hawkins posed the real threat to his prospects, but after his burst of centuries O’Sullivan was guaranteed to lead overnight.