Ronnie O’Sullivan came from 4-2 down to 4-4 against world number 80 Fan Zhengyi in the first session of the BetVictor European Masters final in Milton Keynes.
Fan, ranked 78 places below his opponent, could regret missing a chance to go 5-2 ahead when he had his illustrious opponent on the ropes, and in the end O’Sullivan may feel relieved to finish the session all square. The six-time World Champion failed to make a break over 50 until the last frame of the afternoon. First to ten frames on Sunday night takes the trophy and top prize of £80,000.
Fan, who had never previously been beyond the quarter-finals of a ranking event, looked the more confident player in the early exchanges and remains hopeful of pulling of one of the great upsets in a ranking final, which would stand alongside Jordan Brown’s shock 9-8 defeat of O’Sullivan at last year’s BetVictor Welsh Open. Fan started this tournament a 750-1 outsider, exactly the same odds that Brown defied.
O’Sullivan is playing in his 60th ranking final, 29 years after the first when he beat Stephen Hendry at the 1993 UK Championship. Victory today would give him his 39th ranking title, extending his record with Hendry in second place on the all-time list with 36. It would also be his second of the season having won the Cazoo World Grand Prix in December.
Chigwell’s 46-year-old O’Sullivan is sure to remain second in the world rankings regardless of today’s result. But victory would give him a significant lead of £33,500 at the top of the BetVictor Series rankings with two of the eight events remaining before the top money earner collects a £150,000 bonus.
China’s 21-year-old Fan reached his first ranking quarter-final at last month’s BildBet Germany Masters and has now gone two steps further. The 2017 World Under-21 Champion is already guaranteed £35,000 which would be his biggest pay day. He’ll be up from 80th to 62nd if he loses today’s match, and 31st if he wins.
The Sheffield based cueman, originally from Harbin in Northern China, is looking to become the fifth player from mainland China to win a ranking title, joining Ding Junhui, Liang Wenbo, Yan Bingtao and Zhao Xintong. Last season he won just two knockout matches in ranking events, but has clearly improved dramatically and has scored six wins in this event alone.
Today’s match is the first meeting between the pair. The first two frames were shared, then the third came down to a long safety battle on the colours. Fan, leading 59-39, missed a straight-forward green to a centre pocket, but immediately got another chance when his opponent played a weak safety, and this time took advantage to lead 2-1.
O’Sullivan took frame four before Fan regained the lead with a run of 63. In frame six, O’Sullivan had a clear scoring chance but made just 28 before running out of position. And when he missed a long red by several inches at the end of a safety exchange, he handed Fan the chance for a run of 73 to extend his advantage to 4-2.
In the crucial seventh frame, Fan led 38-37 with two reds left when he missed the black off its spot to a top corner. O’Sullivan took the last two reds and laid a tough snooker on the yellow, and from the chance that followed he cleared to halve his deficit. And a break of 83 in the last frame allowed O’Sullivan to finish the session on a high note.
They return at 7pm to play to a finish.