Ronnie O’Sullivan found himself in a battle and came up with the response of a sporting gladiator to pull clear of Barry Hawkins after a superb opening day of the Betfair World Championship final.
First-time Crucible finalist Hawkins stormed back from two frames adrift to level at 7-7, but O’Sullivan’s reaction to the encroaching danger was instantaneous and punishing as he fired in breaks of 103 and 106 before winning a dramatic last of the evening on the black to lead 10-7 overnight.
Hawkins had 9-8 in his sights when he clipped in blue and pink, but he left O’Sullivan a long black and, to the defending champion’s relief, it found the heart of the pocket.
O’Sullivan claimed a place in the snooker history books as his four centuries – he made runs of 113 and 100 yesterday afternoon – saw him edge two ahead of Stephen Hendry’s World Championship record at the Crucible, which had stood at 127.
The highest number of centuries in a match at the Crucible stands at the six that Mark Selby made against Hendry two years ago, and that could come under threat today as the best-of-35-frames tussle moves to its conclusion.
O’Sullivan is also bidding to become the first player since Hendry in 1996 to successfully defend the title in Sheffield.
Although O’Sullivan finished the day in front, much of the credit for making the start to the final so richly entertaining had to go to Hawkins.
The 34-year-old world No 14 from Kent fired in back-to-back breaks of 83 and 133 in the evening to bring him level, but, not for the first time in this tournament, O’Sullivan managed to pull rank.
There was a long way to go in the final before 80-1 pre-tournament outsider Hawkins could start to think of lifting the trophy tonight, particularly after the final frame went against him.
However, the level of his performance was defying widespread expectations that O’Sullivan would cruise to a fifth world title, and when Hawkins nicked the fifth frame to take a 3-2 lead into the mid-session interval, it was the first time that the “Rocket” had trailed in a match in the tournament.
Were Hawkins to lift the trophy this evening, it would rank as surely the greatest upset in a World Championship final since Joe Johnson beat Steve Davis in 1986.
But from 3-2 behind in the afternoon, O’Sullivan soon regained his poise, reeling off the next three frames as he powered in a 76 and those 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.