Ding Junhui’s Crucible curse in his adopted hometown of Sheffield saw him make a shock first-round exit at the Dafabet World Championship.
The world No 3 – who moved to the Steel City as a teenager in his bid to conquer the snooker world – crashed out 10-9 to unknown rookie Michael Wasley late on Monday night.
Ding has long been tipped as a future world champion, such is his talent.
But this was the 27-year-old’s eighth appearance at the famous Crucible theatre, and he has only progressed beyond the second round twice.
Ding’s exit was the biggest shock in the opening four days of the 17-day tournament, but he was not the only casualty.
Yesterday, four-time world champion John Higgins fell at the first hurdle, beaten by another veteran in 43-year-old Alan McManus 10-7.
The Scot next plays another player enjoying a renaissance in Ken Doherty, who beat world No 6 Stuart Bingham 10-5.
Stephen Maguire, 13th in the world rankings, also packed his bags early after losing 10-9 to Welshman Ryan Day.
Ding’s final-frame defeat was the fourth time this week that a match had been settled by a single frame shoot-out, compared to just two final-frame deciders in the entire tournament last year.
The other two 10-9 thrillers saw 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy edge out Jamie Cope, while former world No 1 Mark Selby pipped Michael White.
But it was Ding’s exit – one of the biggest first-round shocks in Crucible history – which has stunned the sport.
He has been in imperious form this season, equalling Stephen Hendry’s record of winning five ranking titles, and was seen as a serious threat to defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Leading 6-3 after the first session, Ding was then poised for victory at 9-8, before the players were taken off and had to make a late-night return four hours later to complete the match.
The delay seemed to revive world No 73 Wasley – making his Crucible bow after winning four qualifying matches to reach the televised stages – who knocked in a 103 break to force the decider.
“I had many chances but I didn’t take them,” said Ding.
“Sometimes the cushions bounced and took me out of position, which kills me and my game and costs me the frame.
“I should have won more frames but he played brilliantly. I feel like playing him was like playing Judd Trump in 2011, great potting and great break-building. He’s very good under pressure – a good player.
“I was a bit surprised he played so well. In the first session he didn’t play like that in the last few frames. He made a big break to come back to 9-9. I had some bad luck in the last frame but I tried the best I could” said Ding, whose best Crucible finish saw him reach the semi-finals in 2011.
“Nearly every time I win a tournament, the next one I lose in the first round. Maybe I just win too much.”
For Higgins, it was his second successive first-round exit in Sheffield, and the 38-year-old admitted his days as a regular title contender may lie behind him.
“It’s been a bad season but I’m a lot happier compared to last year,” said Higgins. “I think I’m playing better – that’s a crumb of comfort I can take.
“I feel as if there’s something there that I can work on. There’s been times when I’ve been sat here desolate, but I still think there’s some decent snooker left in me.
“I’m not one of the top players that’s challenging for events, I’m possibly a journeyman top 16 player now. The journeymen can have their day sometimes.”
A fluked red gave Higgins the impetus to stop the early morning rot and get back to 8-4, and after losing the next to go one frame away from defeat he belatedly found some vintage form, with the 38-year-old making 111, 67 and 94 in closing the gap to 9-7.
McManus, 43, trailed in the next frame too, but Higgins missed the blue when he looked like going just one frame behind and his good friend seized the unexpected match-winning chance.
“It was a bit of a tense finish,” said McManus. “It’s never easy to put John away.
“Although he probably never played as well as he would have liked in most of the match, he came on strong towards the end and I kind of just fell over the line so I feel very fortunate.
“Now I play my fellow old-stager, Ken, and I really look forward to it. I’m sure Ken will be looking forward to it as much as I am.”