John Higgins (5/1 Masters Outright) begun his quest for a third Masters title in style as he claimed a resounding 6-2 victory over Zhao Xintong in the first round at Alexandra Palace on Monday.
World number six Higgins is competing at the Triple Crown event for a record 28th time and he rolled back the years against debutant Zhao, recording two centuries before a break of 78 sealed his victory.
The win also acted as revenge for Higgins, who surrendered a 5-3 lead to lose 6-5 to Zhao at the UK Championship, but that defeat is a rare blot on what has been an otherwise impressive period for the Wizard of Wishaw, as he has already reached four finals this season.
Higgins, who will now face Mark Williams in the quarter-finals on Thursday (Williams 7/5, Higgins 4/7 – Match Betting), was certainly delighted to get past rising star Zhao and he has credited an improved fitness regime with helping him rediscover his best form.
“Zhao is a superstar of the game but to beat him 6-2, I am really pleased with the way I played,” Higgins told BBC Sport.
“I am just glad to be back and glad I can fit in the chair now. I have never done any fitness work in my life and I could feel in the last few years really how the nerves were getting to me a little bit more.
“But just being fitter and losing some weight has helped 100%.”
Monday’s other first-round winner was Barry Hawkins, who got the better of 2015 Masters champion Shaun Murphy 6-2, reeling off four successive frames, that included a break of 103, to take the match after the two players had gone into the mid-session interval at 2-2.
Hawkins (16/1 Masters Outright) will now face the winner of Tuesday’s evening match between world number one Mark Selby and Stephen Maguire in the quarter-finals on Friday (Selby 1/3, Maguire 23/10 – Match Betting).
Selby (6/1 Masters Outright) is aiming to win a fourth Masters title and 10th Triple Crown event this week, but he is under no illusions just how tough it will be.
“My goals for the next few seasons are to try and win a few more Triple Crown events if possible,” the Jester from Leicester told livesnooker.com.
“All you can do is try because you’ve got no divine right to win any of them. They’re such tough tournaments to win.
“I didn’t think I’d win this many so now I have, I want to try to win them again.”
The opening match of the day on Tuesday will see the most decorated player in Masters history, Ronnie O’Sullivan, begin his pursuit of an eighth title when he takes on Jack Lisowski (O’Sullivan 2/7, Lisowski 5/2 – Match Betting).