Ronnie O’Sullivan powered through to the quarter-finals of the Betfair World Championship on Monday, but admitted he already feels worn out.
As snooker's "burnout" debate rages, O'Sullivan's claim that he is tired after only his second match since September seemed extraordinary. Unlike the other players, he can hardly blame World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn's packed calendar.
After winning all 12 of his previous matches against Ali Carter at major tournaments, including last year's Crucible final, O'Sullivan extended that record to 13 from 13 by prevailing 13-8 to set up a clash with Stuart Bingham on Tuesday.
Carter came from 6-3 behind to briefly level at seven frames each, at which point he had O'Sullivan rattled in his seat, with the 37-year-old four-time world champion still not at his sharpest following almost a full year out of the sport. But O'Sullivan even in rusty condition eventually proved too potent a potter for Carter, who was floored by a flurry of punishing breaks.
Armed with a 9-7 overnight lead, breaks of 88, 106 and 89 in the final three frames suggested O'Sullivan will be difficult to stop as he bids to become the first player since Stephen Hendry in 1996 to retain the title.
O'Sullivan said: "I'm pleased I came through it, but it's not going to get any easier now. I feel a lot more tired and jaded than I did coming into this tournament last year."
Carter suggested luck was on O'Sullivan's side, and that the 37-year-old was benefiting from having taken almost a year out of the sport. But O'Sullivan's assessment that he is a long way from being the freshest player in the draw was intriguing, particularly considering he must play every day from now until the end of the tournament next Monday to land a fifth Crucible crown.
"Mentally it wasn't taxing, but whatever I do people think I've got an advantage. Whatever I say, everyone thinks it's all about me, all about Ronnie," O'Sullivan said. "Last year was probably the best I've ever played anywhere. Last year I felt unplayable. Last year I was playing some shots and thinking ‘Wow, I've got them here'. I knew when I got in I was going to clear the table. And I knew I was just too strong physically, mentally, I just felt invincible."
Responding to Carter's claim that O'Sullivan had all the good fortune, he said: "I don't necessarily think it's luck, I just think I'm one of those people who keeps getting back up, keeps fighting and keeps punching. I'm a trier. I've always come out and given it my best. I'm not afraid of any situation, I'm not afraid of taking a risk."
Carter is convinced O'Sullivan can carry off the title. "If his head doesn't fall off, yes he will," he said. "But we all know if his head falls off anyone can beat him. If he plays like he did today, nobody can beat him.
"I think he's done the right thing having a year off; in fact I might do that next year. Why not?"
Bingham has struggled to make a World Championship impact since marking his debut in 2000 with a stunning first-round win over defending champion Stephen Hendry. But the 36-year-old from Basildon posted a 13-10 win over Mark Davis today to set up the O'Sullivan showdown.
Bingham said: "I've got nothing to lose, all eyes are on Ronnie. Playing Mark it was a really cagey safety battle but against Ronnie it'll be more open and hopefully it'll be like a break-building feast."
Ding Junhui believes he can deliver China's first Crucible title, and the manner of his 13-9 victory over Mark King suggested he may be right. With four centuries and seven more breaks above 50 in the match, Ding staged a brilliant recovery from a poor first session to win comfortably.
Next in the firing line of the former Masters and UK champion will be Kent's Barry Hawkins in a last-eight clash that begins on Tuesday.
King said: "He was on a different planet and when he's hitting the ball like that I don't think anyone can get near him, even Ronnie O'Sullivan."
Ricky Walden's 13-11 win against Robert Milkins completed the last-eight line-up.