A frustrated Ronnie O’Sullivan survived a scare before eventually scraping past Ding Junhui 6-5 to book his place in the Players Championship quarter-finals on Tuesday.
Less than 48 hours after his Welsh Open final defeat by Jordan Brown, the Rocket was far from his fluent best in Milton Keynes.
Having already vented his frustration following several uncharacteristic errors during the contest, it boiled over in the penultimate frame after missing a green with the rest, which he subsequently flung across the arena floor.
But despite opening the door for Ding to force a decider from 5-3 down, O’Sullivan held his nerve with a timely break of 95 to scrape over the line at the Marshall Arena.
The Rocket was launching his quest for a third Players Championship title, having donned the crown in 2018 and 2019 – the year he compiled his 1,000th century break to seal victory over Neil Robertson in the final.
Although, he was unable to build momentum against Ding, who was seeking only a fifth win in 22 meetings between the players.
After the opening six frames were shared, O’Sullivan appeared to be firing on all cylinders at the perfect time as he won the next two with a magnificent 103 clearance along the way.
The six-time World champion – seeking his first trophy since his triumph in Sheffield last August – was made to wait as Ding produced a run of 53 to keep his hopes alive.
O’Sullivan, who failed to qualify for last year’s event, had a golden opportunity to snatch victory from 67-0 down in the next.
But a loose positional shot on the green, which he subsequently missed with the rest, opened the door for the world number nine to force a decider for the third consecutive showdown between the players.
Nevertheless, after Ding missed a long opening red and left him in, the Rocket carved out a brilliant break of 95 to set up a quarter-final date with Jack Lisowski.
The five-time ranking event finalist – including this season’s World Grand Prix and German Masters – hit five half-century breaks in his 6-3 win over European Masters runner-up Martin Gould.
Barry Hawkins also prevailed in a deciding frame; edging out Zhou Yuelong in a thrilling high-scoring encounter between two players looking to break into the world’s top 16.
Making his debut in this event, world number 17 Zhou led on four separate occasions thanks to breaks of 69, 109, 77 and 85 along the way.
However, he was pegged back on each occasion by world number 18 Hawkins, who had runs of 63, 54, 83, 109, 57 and 143 – the highest break of the tournament so far.
And the former World finalist’s experience paid dividends as he controlled the decider to book a clash with Stuart Bingham in the last eight.
Earlier in the day, a red-hot Neil Robertson produced four centuries in his 6-1 rout of Lu Ning.
Sporting long natural curly hair, the Australian was seeking his first victory since lifting the UK Championship title in December.
But after sharing the first two frames with world number 33 Lu, he went into overdrive with breaks of 135, 130, 82, 142 and 135 to set up a quarter-final showdown with Kyren Wilson.
Players Championship 2021 Results
Tuesday February 23
Jack Lisowski 6-3 Martin Gould
Neil Robertson 6-1 Lu Ning
Zhou Yuelong 5-6 Barry Hawkins
Ronnie O’Sullivan 6-5 Ding Junhui