Ronnie O’Sullivan was pushed hard in his opening match at the Betfred World Championship against David Gilbert but eventually won 10-7 to reach the last 16.
O’Sullivan is targeting his sixth world title and first since 2013, and his next test will be against Barry Hawkins or Zhang Anda, starting on Saturday.
The Rocket made a blistering start to 2016 by winning the Masters and Welsh Open, though he then lost in the first round of the World Grand Prix and had not played a competitive match for over a month when he arrived in Sheffield. He struggled for fluency at times against qualifier Gilbert, though he did make a century and six more breaks over 50.
International Championship finalist Gilbert trailed 6-3 after the first session and won the opening frame today with breaks of 60 and 62. O’Sullivan took the next with a 30 clearance then made a 101 to lead 8-4. Gilbert kept his hopes alive by taking the 13th frame to trail by three at the interval.
In frame 14 O’Sullivan made 47 before going in-off when splitting the pack, and his opponent capitalised with a 61 clearance. Gilbert also had a chance in the next after O’Sullivan missed the brown on 29, but he failed on a red to a top corner and O’Sullivan was able to add 51 to go 9-6 ahead.
Gilbert won the 16th with a run of 71 but his resistance was finally ended in the next as O’Sullivan’s 72 secured his progress.
“It’s probably the best I’ll ever play and not win a game of snooker,” Gilbert said. “I felt like I learned a lot from it and I’ve got absolutely nothing to be ashamed about. I gave it my all, and maybe it wasn’t quite enough, but I’ll try again.
“I was really enjoying it out there. There’s not much you can worry about when you’re up against a player like Ronnie.
“His all round play is just unbelievable. His tactical brain is brilliant, I lost a few frames when I was 40 or 50 points behind, and I was a bit unlucky but once he gets you snookered you get snookered every shot. He’s just so clever.
“There will be some players in the draw who think they can beat him but if Ronnie plays well he will take some stopping.”
Meanwhile, four-time champion John Higgins forged a 7-2 lead over Ryan Day. Scotland’s Higgins looked in fine form as he compiled breaks of 105, 79, 100, 77 and 105.