After time out through injury, former world No 2 Willstrop, from Harrogate, has recently loitered around outside the world top 20, a situation that brings him up against the top-ranked players a lot earlier in tournaments.
Hence, the 33-year-old, who trains in Pontefract under the watchful eye of his father and coach Malcolm Willstrop, found himself on the show court at the Hong Kong Squash Centre against the recently-crowned world champion.
Given Willstrop treated spectators to a touch of his old self in Bellevue two weeks ago when reaching the world semi-finals – a run which saw him rise nine places in the December rankings to 15 - France’s Gaultier knew his task of reaching the quarter-finals would be far from easy. And so it proved.
It took over 60 minutes to secure a place in the last eight, the Yorkshireman making him work for every point before the No 3 seed for the event eventually prevailed 11-7, 11-8, 3-11, 11-6.
“That was one of the toughest matches I could have had at this stage in a tournament and I really had to give my all,” said Gaultier.
“James proved last week at the worlds that he can beat anyone so I knew I had to be sharp. I had to push myself mentally and physically especially in the fourth game when I gave everything in the tank to try and take control of the match away from him.
“I feel a little bit physically drained after winning the World Championship but mentally I’m still there. I struggled yesterday in the first round and today was a tough match as well but these kind of matches can help keep you sharp.”
Gaultier will now face Australian Cameron Pilley, after he got the better of German Simon Rösner.
Elsewhere, Sheffield’s Nick Matthew booked his place in the last eight with a comfortable straight games win over qualifier Zahed Mohamed, from Egypt.
After a tough opening game, the 35-year-old three-time world champion took control to complete a 15-13, 11-4, 11-5 in just over 45 minutes on court.
In the second round of the women’s draw, there was disappointment for Harrogate’s Jenny Duncalf as she lost out to eighth seed Amanda Sobhy 11-8, 11-7, 11-8.
The No 12 seed, a recent winner at the Monte Carlo Classic, will be buoyed somewhat after rising back up the world rankings earlier this week, moving up seven places to 14th in the world list.
Afterwards, Sobhy acknowledge how hard she had been made to work by former world No 2 Duncalf.
“Jen’s been playing well with some good wins and she won Monte Carlo, so I knew it was going to be tough,” said Sobhy.
“All three games were close, I would get leads but she’d close them up, so I’m happy to get off in three in the end.”