JOHN Higgins would like to see Ronnie O'Sullivan return to snooker in time for the World Championship this year as he carries with him the sort of box-office appeal which attracts so many supporters to the baize.
The world champion is on sabbatical so as to spend more time with his family, his absence starting once he lifted last year's title at the Crucible.
His presence at the event this year would generate huge interest were he to return, and Barry Hearn, the chairman of World Snooker, was last month reported to have opened talks with O'Sullivan over the prospect of him taking part.
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The Englishman would find support from Higgins were he to pick up his cue again, although the Scot's immediate concern comes in the form of this week's Betfair.com Masters, which began yesterday at London's Alexandra Palace. The Scot will play his first match of the tournament today when he takes on Ali Carter, and he would welcome the chance to face O'Sullivan at future events.
"I want Ronnie at the Crucible, to play in the World Championships because he brings a lot of people into the sport," said Higgins. "Some may have switched off from the game altogether if he was their favourite player – and for many he is their favourite player.
"It would be great [if he returned] but you have to respect his decision either way. Coming so soon after Stephen Hendry retired, it has been a big loss to snooker.
"But if he doesn't come back and play at the World Cham-pionship this year, with the chance he has, why would he come back in future years? That would be my thinking on it. If he leaves he also has that memory last May of having won the world title.
"On the other hand, someone as good as Ronnie, could think 'why don't I try and get to five or six world titles?' – that's what's driving me, but everyone is different."
Higgins will this week aim to win his first Masters title in seven years. He will not be preoccupied with the void left by O'Sullivan in London but feels his absence would be felt more acutely in Sheffield.
"If he doesn't want to put himself through it, it's his call but not having the world champion there is a loss," he said. "It has not diminished titles won this season, though. There are far too many good players to say that.
"When I won in Shanghai this season after a great final against Judd Trump I couldn't have cared less whether or not Ronnie was in the draw but the world championship is the big one and we have won that title four times each now."
In yesterday's Masters action, defending champion Neil Robertson came from behind to keep his title defence on track with a 6-5 victory over Ding Junhui. The Australian trailed 5-3 but recovered to win the last three frames and book a place in the quarter finals.
Ding impressed with breaks of 103, 53, 127, 42 and 54, but Robertson dug deep to triumph with match runs of 76, 46, 100, 62 and 90. "At 5-3 it wasn't looking good, but I potted some great balls to force a decider," said Robertson, who punched the air in delight at his win.
"I'm over the moon to get through. My long potting was fantastic, the signs are looking very good."