John Higgins reached the second round of the Betfred World Championship for the first time since 2012 with an impressive 10-5 victory over Robert Milkins.
After winning his fourth Crucible crown in 2011, Higgins had a lean few years, and suffered first round defeats to Mark Davis and Alan McManus in Sheffield.
But the 39-year-old Scot showed signs of a return to his best form in winning the Welsh Open in February – his first ranking title since 2012 – and again the break-building class and tactical nous were in evidence during a fine display against Milkins, the highest seeded of the 16 qualifiers.
Higgins fired a century and six more breaks over 50 as he set up a last 16 meeting with Ding Junhui or Mark Davis.
“The fire is still strong,” said 14th seed Higgins. “I would love to get to five titles and be level with Ronnie O’Sullivan. I know how to win this event, although there are a lot of bigger favourites than me.
Ronnie has out-stripped me in terms of tournaments won and centuries – he is chasing Stephen Hendry’s records. But to have those two and Steve Davis ahead of me, I can’t complain because they are the icons of the game.
“I’m happy to beat Rob because he’s a dangerous opponent. I was pleased when the draw came out because I’d rather know I was going to be in for a tough game, rather than face a debutant who everyone expected me to beat easily.
“I hit the ball well and felt good among the balls. That was the best I have felt here since 2011.
“I have doubted myself in recent years but the Welsh Open gave me a boost. Before the Masters I cut my cue down to the shortest length it has ever been and since then I have felt more in control of my technique.”
Higgins led 6-3 after the first session and soon extended his advantage tonight with breaks of 77 and 75 for 8-3.
Milkins battled back to take the next two to make it 8-5 at the interval, but there was to be no fight-back as Higgins compiled runs of 69 and 106 to win the last two frames.
Milkins said: “He was too good for me. I was quite happy when the draw came out because I’ve had a good record against him recently. But I haven’t seen him that sharp for four or five years. I will take a good man to beat him.
“It hasn’t been a bad season for me but I’ve just come up short in a couple of tournaments. I’m 39 now now so I’m running out of time. But I’ll be back next season to try again.”