Hossein Vafaei has vowed there will be no repeat of his kamikaze Crucible break-off when he faces Ronnie O’Sullivan in the semi-finals of the UK Snooker Championship in York on Saturday.
The Iranian set up a rematch of the grudge clash that rocked April’s world championship by beating China’s Zhang Anda 6-4, while O’Sullivan dredged up a break of 122 to sink Chinese qualifier Zhou Yuelong in a final-frame decider.
In the evening’s quarter-finals, Judd Trump beat Mark Selby 6-3 and will meet Ding Junhui after the Chinese, three times a UK champion, saw off Mark Williams 6-5 in a tense, topsy-turvy battle.
Vafaei says he has no regrets about his wild start – where he smashed the balls from his first break-off and saw O’Sullivan mop up a clinical 78 – at the Crucible, which was a response to perceived disrespect shown by O’Sullivan when he played a similar shot in a match at the German Masters 18 months earlier. Despite also claiming pre-match that he wanted to “shut” O’Sullivan’s mouth and that the Englishman should retire because he was “not good for the game”, the pair had exited the stage arm in arm after the underdog’s 13-2 humbling.
“The past is the past,” Vafaei insisted on Friday. “I’d been waiting 18 months to do that. I know it was a little bit crazy but I’ve done it. Everything has karma. But I just want to respect my hero and have a good friendship with him. Life is too short. I wish him the best of health and I love him.”
Vafaei, who has racked up six centuries in the last two rounds, heads into their rematch as the form player after an unfocused O’Sullivan almost let a 4-1 lead slip against Zhou, the Chinese world No 26. O’Sullivan, who had edged through in similar circumstances against Robert Milkins in the previous round, showed his frustration as he missed a succession of easy chances before delivering when it mattered, with his final-frame clearance of 122.
The 47-year-old is also adamant he bears no ill will towards Vafaei, whom he considered a friend prior to the incident during German Masters qualifying which annoyed the Iranian. “I didn’t feel disrespected (by Vafaei’s break-off) – not at all,” said O’Sullivan. “I’ve done worse – a lot worse. I like Hossein, he’s a fiery character. He doesn’t take no nonsense.”
O’Sullivan looked set for an easy afternoon as Zhou, seemingly struggling with nerves, looked a shadow of the player who had accounted for Neil Robertson and John Higgins in previous rounds. But from a 4-1 advantage O’Sullivan dramatically lost focus, missing a series of simple shots to allow Zhou to pull level twice, before he found just enough to keep his hopes of a record-breaking eighth UK title alive.
“I was just waiting for something to happen and it did, and I played all right,” said O’Sullivan, who continues to play down his hopes of lifting the trophy on the 30th anniversary of his first success. “If I don’t find some form from somewhere I’m going to get beat here.”
Vafaei was pushed almost to the limit in a high-quality clash with the in-form Zhang, who won the prestigious International Championship in China three weeks ago and got the better of the world champion, Luca Brecel, in the previous round. Vafaei twice hauled back Zhang’s early advantage by making century breaks, then from 4-3 behind he summoned a big finish with consecutive breaks of 106 and 56 to confirm the first triple crown semi-final of his career.
In the evening, Trump continued to defy a bout of flu with a 6-3 win over Selby to reach only his second UK semi-final in nine years. Breaks of 100 and 93 swept Trump into a 4-0 interval lead before Selby recovered from 5-1 down to 5-3, but Trump won the next frame to seal his win.
“I’m still struggling,” said Trump. “I’m happy that I got through but I just felt a little bit horrible and I was going through the motions a little bit. You want to be able to give it everything in a tournament like this, but it’s just about having to grind it out because you’re not going to be feeling like this is every single tournament.”
Williams and Ding served up a slice of snooker history in the eighth frame of their quarter-final, with the cumulative score of 101-94 in Williams’ favour beating the previous record of 192 by three points.
Ding recovered to edge past Williams 6-5 with a 105 clearance in the decider, setting up a last-four clash with Trump on Saturday evening.