Higgins faces Fu after giving Drago the chop

JOHN HIGGINS was a man in a hurry as he swept into the second round of the Irish Masters in just 53 minutes yesterday.

Higgins fired in breaks of 80, 95, 78, 58 and 73 in defeating Maltese number one Tony Drago 5-1.

Drago scored only nine points in the first four frames but averted the whitewash by winning the fifth with runs of 57 and 31.

Despite the swiftness of his victory, Higgins is determined not to get carried away after a season in which he has flattered to deceive.

The world number four has produced some top quality performances in the early rounds of tournaments only to struggle later on.

“I’ve played like that in matches this season and then fallen away so I need to keep my concentration,” said Higgins, whose last title was the 2002 Irish Masters.

“I know the form is there but I haven’t had a great season and I want to finish it on a high.”

Higgins tackles Marco Fu for a place in the quarter-finals after the Hong Kong player defeated Glaswegian Alan McManus 5-1.

Fu suffered a bitterly disappointing defeat to Stuart Pettman at the Embassy World Championship qualifiers last week to be denied a Crucible place.

But he returned to form with breaks of 77, 92, 82 and 58 to advance to the last 16 in impressive fashion.

“Losing in the world championship was very tough,” Fu said. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot for the last couple of days but it’s just a matter of bouncing back.”

Peter Ebdon hit top form, firing in breaks of 136, 64, 125 and 79 in defeating Ian McCulloch 5-2.

And 33-year-old Ebdon admitted his zest for the game has been sharpened by the emergence of young, talented players who are beginning to threaten the sport’s elite.

“Looking at the results this season, there’s evidence that snooker is never going to be the same again,” he said.

“The standard is so incredibly high so it’s a really exciting period we’re entering.

Ebdon, the 1995 Irish Masters champion, practises with one young hopeful at the First Artist academy at Rushden.

Ding Jun Hui, a 17-year-old from China, impressed many observers on his appearance as a wild card at the Wembley Masters last month and has since qualified for the Players Championship in Glasgow.

And Ebdon, who has watched him close up day after day on the practice table, is convinced he will be snooker’s next big thing.

“Ding is perhaps the greatest talent I have ever seen. I think he’ll go all the way and be world champion. He could win it many times.

“I’ve been lucky to be able to practice with such a young and exciting player.”

Ebdon faces Nigel Bond for a place in the quarter-finals after the 1995 Crucible runner-up beat 16th seed Joe Perry 5-3.

Bond, who lost in the world championship qualifiers last week, finished off with a break of 118.

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