Snooker: Relaxed Higgins eases into quarter-final

JOHN HIGGINS, whose 8-0 whitewash of Mark King on Thursday evening had pointed to victory with a morning to spare, had to put in a brief appearance yesterday to make an 80 break and complete the 13-4 win which carried him into the quarter-finals of the Embassy World Championship at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

Either the Grand Prix champion Stephen Lee or Alan McManus, the No 8 seed who was too steady for Jimmy White, will oppose him. The defending champion's display in the opening session was, he reckoned, "probably the best I've played all season". His avalanche of breaks, starting with 75, 104 and 108, almost created the illusion he had no opponent and it was much to King's credit that he made his presence felt with 99, 103 and 103 on Friday afternoon when he could easily have won six or seven frames. "I was a bit too relaxed for the second session," said Higgins. "But I feel very relaxed generally."

John Parrott's 11th Crucible quarter-final opponent will be either the unpredictable Ronnie O'Sullivan or Joe Perry, the world No 74 from Wisbech, whose 55 clearance to beat Steve Davis 10-9 on the final black was the most dramatic moment of the opening week. Parrott, 35 in May, is experiencing the onset of eyesight difficulties. "I'm having problems focusing on the long runs," he admitted. "I'm alright close in."

Exuding Liverpudlian wit and affability on A Question of Sport and elsewhere, a future in the media and probably as a racehorse trainer lies ahead but there is nothing like competing and you are a long time retired. "It's a bit like my old mate Coisty," he said in reference to his quiz programme sparring partner, Ally McCoist. "He still likes being in the dressing- room at Kilmarnock and I'd miss the camaraderie on the circuit."

He knew what to expect from Chris Small, the tall, meticulous Scot whom he beat 13-12 on Friday night. "If you've got a ticket, change it for another match," he said. Slow as the Thorburnesque Small was ("I can't play faster. There's no point in trying") it was engrossing.

A win for Small would have put him in the top 16 for the first time and he looked capable of it at 10-9, 54-0. "The 20th frame was massive," said Parrott, reflecting on a 74 for 10-10. He went two up but an hour later Small completed a 131 clearance to level at 12-12. "He's a human limpet. He just won't let go," said Parrott after taking the decider with a cool 68.

Matthew Stevens, the 21-year-old Welshman and quarter- finalist last year, has the flare, fluency and power of a potential champion but had his 6-2 overnight lead over Tony Drago reduced to 9-7 at lunch. In spite of three wins over Stephen Hendry, Drago has had a poor season. Of all the top players, there is the greatest difference between his best and his worst but two dashing centuries, 108 and 137, gave him two of the morning's first three frames.

Stevens laid a snooker on the last red to create the opening for 9-6 and, in play with 62, was heading for 10-6 but missed a straight blue. Malta's No 1 then made a stirring 63 clearance for the black-ball win to limit his arrears to two frames going into last evening's final session.

Nigel Bond, runner-up four years ago, had not reached a world ranking quarter-final in eight attempts this season or made a century break. Tight and competitive, however, he led Ken Doherty, the 1997 champion, 10-6 after two sessions but at 11-9 was still two frames short of a quarter- final place.

Bond led 50-0 in the opening frame only to lose it on the black and missed a routine green to lose the third on a tie-break black. At 10-9, though, Bond potted the brown from distance, added blue to a distant baulk pocket and with the pink earned a two-frame breathing space.

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