Local hero Drago turns back the clock

Ten years ago, when big-time pro-snooker first arrived on Maltese shores, Tony Drago ended the tournament in a flood of tears.

Ten years ago, when big-time pro-snooker first arrived on Maltese shores, Tony Drago ended the tournament in a flood of tears.

Drago sobbed inconsolably after losing 7-6, from 5-1 up, to John Parrott in the final of the 1994 Rothmans Malta Grand Prix.

A decade on, though, and Malta’s favourite sporting son is on course to have the last laugh after reaching the quarter-finals of the £400,000 (€600,000) European Open.

This evening the Portomaso Hilton Hotel will be full to bursting – a ticket for the match is the hottest on the Mediterranean island – as Drago continues his quest to collect the £48,000 (€72,000) first prize against equally unpredictable Aussie Quinten Hann.

Having survived a 45-minute deciding frame to edge past 10th seed Alan McManus 5-4 on Monday, Drago was again the toast of Malta last night thanks to his unexpected 5-2 victory over recently crowned Masters champion Paul Hunter.

“It’s about time I gave my fans a bit of fun because for the last few years it’s been pressure, pressure, pressure for me here and I just haven’t performed,” said 38 year-old Drago.

“But if I couldn’t get myself psyched up for this tournament, with all the support I get, there would be something wrong.

“I’m not playing as well as I can but I keep winning so I’m not complaining at all. Obviously now I want to go all the way.”

In order to do so, Drago must produce a much higher standard of snooker than that on display against Hunter, who could not remember the last time he committed so many basic errors.

Drago put together only one break over 50 but crucially cleared from the last red to pinch frame five on the black.

That was 4-1 to the local hero and a decidedly below par Hunter, who has never done himself justice in overseas tournaments, could not remedy the situation.

While Drago was able to look forward to his first ranking-event quarter-final since the 1998 Irish Open, Hunter was left to undertake a post mortem on a thoroughly miserable outing.

“I missed so many easy balls I didn’t deserve to win,” said the baffled Yorkshireman, who hardly missed anything of significance on the way to beating Ronnie O’Sullivan 10-9 at Wembley last month to lift the Masters trophy for the third time in four years.

“When I go abroad I try just as hard as I do at other tournaments but for some reason it never seems to work out.”

It was not only a memorable day for Maltese snooker, a pair of Australian cuemen also had plenty to celebrate.

For the first time two players from Down Under will feature in the quarter-finals of a ranking event as Neil Robertson joins Hann there.

Robertson, the reigning world under-21 champion, achieved a personal best by beating David Gray, the 12th seed, 5-2; Hann ground out a 5-1 victory over Anthony Hamilton.

Next on the agenda for Robertson, a talented potter with a big future, is Jimmy White, a talented potter with a big past.

White, enjoying something of a resurgence in form after reaching the semi-finals of The Masters and UK Championship, advanced courtesy of a 5-3 win over an out of sorts Stephen Hendry.

“I love the game but in the past I haven’t given it enough respect. Maybe now I’m starting to get some positive pay-back for doing things right,” said White, who refused numerous offers to indulge in Malta’s nightlife the evening before taking on Hendry.

In the top half of the draw, O’Sullivan continues the defence of his title against Stephen Lee while John Higgins, chasing his first trophy since the 2002 Irish Masters, tackles fellow Scot Stephen Maguire.

Lee battled for three hours, 21 minutes to see off Steve Davis 5-3 but O’Sullivan wasted little time in breezing past Chris Small 5-1.

The Rocket applied the finishing touch with a 112 break and Higgins also scored heavily en route to registering his second 5-0 whitewash in as many matches.

His latest whipping boy was Graeme Dott, who was on the receiving end of runs of 57, 81, 52 and 82 as he slumped to his ninth defeat by Higgins in 10 meetings.

However, it was anything but plain sailing for Maguire, who rallied from 4-1 in arrears to book his ranking-event quarter-final debut with a 5-4 victory over Joe Perry.

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