John Higgins rolled back the years last night to march into the second round of the Betfred World Championship.
Just 24 hours after world No 1 Mark Selby scraped through the opening round in the defence of his Crucible crown, Higgins looked back to something like the form which has seen him crowned world champion four times.
But the last of those titles came in 2011 and in the last three visits to Sheffield, Higgins has won just a solitary game, such was his decline on the green baize.
The 39-year-old showed glimpses of his return to form earlier this season, lifting the Welsh Open in February – his first ranking tournament since 2012 – and helping repair a fragile confidence.
Paired against Robert Milkins – who had come out on top in their last four meetings – for his first-round Crucible match, Higgins could have been forgiven for having early nerves.
But the Scotsman – who had suffered first-round exits to Mark Davis and Alan McManus in recent visits – looked like he had rediscovered the granite competitive spirit which he has built his career on.
Victory never looked in doubt as he wrapped up a 10-5 win –complete with a century clearance, plus six more breaks of over 50 – and set up a second-round meeting with either Ding Junhui or Mark Davis.
“That’s the best I’ve probably played here (at the Crucible) for three years,” said Higgins.
“But I’ve got be honest, I’ve had a few sleepless nights because I wasn’t winning and didn’t think I’d get back in the winners’ circle.
“Luckily for me it happened at the Welsh Open and it’s given me a little bit of a boost.
“You definitely doubt yourself, especially when you’re having dark times, but hopefully now there’s some good times.
“I know what it takes to win, but who knows whether I’ve got it in me. I’m proud of the way I played, but relieved at the same time. I’d lost my last four matches to him (Robert), so I knew it was going to be a tough match.
“But I was really pleased with the way I played here. There’s probably more contenders out there than me to win it, but I know what it takes to win it and that obviously helps.
“It would be amazing to win this title again. To win a fifth world title and go alongside Ronnie O’Sullivan, well that would be beyond my wildest dreams. The fire is definitely still there,” added the 14th seed.
Milkins believes Higgins will be tough to stop as he looks to draw level with O’Sullivan on five world titles.
“John played a lot better than me and it was a fair scoreline,” said Gloucester’s Milkins, who was the highest seed of the 16 qualifiers. “He potted some great balls, I haven’t seen him play that sharp four or five years.
“I’ve got a good record against him recently, but it’s going to take a good man to beat him on that form.
“He didn’t let up and played some really good stuff.
“When you play against somebody like him there’s not a lot you can do when he plays well.
“There wouldn’t have been many players who could have kept him under control.”
Yesterday could have been dubbed ‘Scottish Sunday’, as Higgins was joined in the winners’ circle by 2006 champion Graeme Dott and debutant Anthony McGill.
Dott, unseeded this year and forced to come through three rounds of qualfying at the nearby Ponds Forge sports centre just to earn the right to play at the Crucible, looked match-sharp as he ousted Ricky Walden 10-8.
Dott, 37, who was runner-up in Sheffield in 2004 and 2010, led 5-4 overnight only to see Walden battle back to lead 7-6.
“It was nice to win because I wasn’t here last year which was a horrible feeling,” he said.
“It’s nice to know you can still do it at the Crucible. I’m 37 and when you don’t qualify you think maybe that’s me finished.
“I played a good game and I’m delighted to win.”
McGill, 24, won 10-9 in his all-Glaswegian match with Stephen Maguire. But McGill had to hold his nerve after seeing his 9-5 lead chipped away, to go level at 9-9, and force a deciding frame.
On Saturday, defending champion Selby lost five successive frames from 8-4 in front against Kurt Maflin, before grinding out the final two frames to clinch a 10-9 win.
Australian Neil Robertson, the 2010 champion, holds a 7-2 lead over Welshman Jamie Jones.
Hong Kong’s Marco Fu booked his place in the second round by fending off Bexhill’s Jimmy Robertson 10-6, while Barry Hawkins built a 7-2 lead over Matt Selt.