Ronnie O’Sullivan turned on the style just when he looked to be wobbling to stay ahead of Ali Carter in their Betfair World Championship second-round showdown.
A gripping middle session to the contest saw O’Sullivan struggle at times, especially with his long potting and safety play, but he bookended his afternoon in the Crucible with two breaks of 86 and finished 9-7 in front.
They return tomorrow night to finish off, with 13 frames the target for a place in the quarter-finals, and Carter must know he missed a great chance to at the very least level the match.
Beginning the second session armed with a 5-3 lead, O’Sullivan scored heavily in spells but when Carter got to 7-7 it was the underdog who had all the momentum.
O’Sullivan, who has beaten Carter in two Crucible finals, looked to be feeling the pressure of the occasion, but he regained the lead with a fluent 73 break.
And when Carter missed a long red in the final frame it gave the 37-year-old O’Sullivan another chance.
He never looked like missing on his way to restoring the two-frame cushion, with Carter left to stew over how he had been mostly the better player in the session and yet had been unable to make it count.
Before Carter produced his own wayward long red, it was O’Sullivan’s potting that was looking shaky from anything beyond medium range.
He fluffed two in the second frame of the afternoon and Carter punished him. When O’Sullivan missed another red early in the next, Carter eased to an 87 break.
At a tournament where burnout has been cited as a factor in the early demise of so many big names, O’Sullivan was supposed to be the freshest man out in the field, having taken most of the year off since securing his fourth title at the Crucible last May.
He looked that way when he fired in 105, his second century of the match after yesterday’s 125, to lead 7-5.
But O’Sullivan missing a frame-ball black to halt a break on 61 in the next frame put Carter in with a chance to steal, and he held his nerve to make 63 and give O’Sullivan food for thought.
It was soon 7-7, with O’Sullivan rattling another black in the jaws early in the frame.
That was it for Carter, who could only watch as O’Sullivan produced some scintillating snooker when he needed it. In each of the last two frames, he made a cross-table double of the highest quality to stay at the table and pile on the points that means he remains on course to stay unbeaten against Carter at major tournaments. This is their 13th meeting and looked like it was going the same way as the previous 12.
Steve Davis, commentating for the BBC, suggested O’Sullivan “looks like he’s been struggling out there” and said it was “great testament to his temperament” to be in front.
And the overriding sense inside the Crucible is that a fifth world title for O’Sullivan is very much on the cards.
His rivals know he will be hard to stop, with Shaun Murphy saying: “I’ve had a really consistent year but when Ronnie’s in the event it’s hard to look past Ronnie.”
And Ken Doherty, the 1997 world champion, believes O’Sullivan has a crucial advantage as his rivals feel the toll of a long season.
“The likes of Mark Selby, Neil Robertson and Mark Allen have played almost 100 matches this season. That’s quite a lot,” Doherty said.
Those big names have fallen but O’Sullivan remains on the prowl for the big prize.
Doherty told BBC Radio 5 Live: “He’s come into this tournament so fresh and he’s a fit young man as well. That may play a small part in the whole of this World Championship.”
A host of low-ranked players remain in the tournament, with 21-year-old world number 40 Michael White through to the quarter-finals in the bottom half of the draw, along with Barry Hawkins, and Doherty is not discounting a shock winner of the title, likening the situation to the 1986 championship when long shot Joe Johnson triumphed.
“The bottom half is so open that we maybe could have a ’Joe Johnson year’ this year, with someone coming completely from the field, a complete outsider, getting easily to the final at least,” Doherty said.
Ding Junhui had breaks of 59, 98, 74, 81 and a closing 103 in surging from 6-2 behind against Mark King to lead 9-7, with that match ending tomorrow afternoon.