Tuesday 21 November 2017

Hardened technician exploits Rocket's only weakness

Ronnie O'Sullivan during the World Snooker Championships at the Crucible
Ronnie O'Sullivan during the World Snooker Championships at the Crucible

Tommy Conlon

Anyone with a passing knowledge of his opponent would have sensed that the world snooker final was not going to be another procession for Ronnie O'Sullivan.

Mark Selby had the toughness in his mind and the class on the baize to endure this two-day marathon of nerve and concentration. He would not be intimidated by the Rocket.

For most of his two weeks at the Crucible O'Sullivan had once again looked imperious. Now 38 and maturing like a fine wine, he was cruising to his third world title in a row. Having won his first in 2001, he was finally achieving the consistency of a Davis or a Hendry, albeit later in life than when they were in their prime.

But Hendry, in his role as BBC pundit at this year's tournament, had sounded a note of caution about O'Sullivan's seemingly invincible progress to a sixth world crown. O'Sullivan had trounced Selby 10-4 in the final of the Masters last January and the latter, promised Hendry, would be gunning for revenge if they met in the final in Sheffield.

What's more, Selby had proven in the past that he could stand up to O'Sullivan's carpet-bombing visits to the table. He had the bottle to survive the usual firestorm of shots and clearances with which the Rocket despatches almost all players.

As far back as the Welsh Open in 2008, Selby had rallied from 5-8 down to win the final 9-8. In the 2010 Masters final, he came from 6-9 down to win 10-9. And in the 2010 world quarter-final, he surged from 9-11 to win 13-11. In the 24th frame of that match, O'Sullivan, on a break of 42, looked certain to take it into a deciding shoot-out. But he twitched on a red, and twitched badly. Selby had gotten into the head of a player who is rarely vulnerable to an opponent's pressure. He had sabotaged the Rocket's immaculate composure.

There was needle between them at the time too. "I don't think he likes people competing with him," said Selby after that game. "And that's probably why he doesn't really speak to me as much as he does with the others."

So when they shook hands last Sunday afternoon before the first break-off, there was plenty of optimism that the final was not going to be a simple coronation for O'Sullivan.

Which is not to say that we didn't want him to win; it was just that we wanted to see him pushed hard for the winner's trophy and the cheque for £300,000.

On the other hand, it was hard to work up any emotional aversion to the challenger either.

Ronnie O'Sullivan had long been a source of fascination and admiration. The sheer charisma of his talent was irresistible. When he was in the mood, we knew for certain we were in the company of an irrefutable master. We were watching that rarest of human achievements: perfection at work.

And it had a calming effect. It soothed the soul, watching his serene manipulation of ball and angle, stun and spin, kiss and cannon. On his best days he single-handedly elevated this mundane parlour game into something close to performance art. And all of this while racking up five world titles: the acme of style and function and form.

Add to this his back story: the boy who grew to manhood grieving for his absent father, serving a life sentence in prison for murder. The well-documented psychological frailties – the depression, addiction and disabling mood swings.

The Rocket was a novel, a film and a documentary brought to life in flesh and blood. One couldn't but cheer for him, and feel cheered when he triumphed.

But Selby had his own back story too. Abandoned by his mother at the age of eight, he was 16 when his beloved father died of cancer. He and his brother left the council house in Leicester where they'd grown up, Mark moving in with a friend and turning professional at 16. Without the safety nets of school, parents or money, he devoted his young life to his trade. Days and years were spent on the practice table. Hardened by life, driven by his circumstances, he emerged onto the pro circuit a fierce match player and an impeccable technician.

Last Monday an absorbing

final came down to the last session. O'Sullivan had led 10-5 the previous day but Selby took the last two frames to trail by just three overnight. Then he ground out the first four frames of Monday's afternoon session.

Ken Doherty had also been on duty with the BBC at the Crucible. On Newstalk's Off the Ball show last Tuesday, he revealed that O'Sullivan was in trouble even early on the Monday. Friends of the Rocket had confided that "his head was gone already".

Selby had stuttered and struggled during most of Sunday's play and yet was only three down going into the next day. "And from then on," said Doherty, "there was psychological damage."

Selby duly broke him. Probably the greatest player ever to pick up a cue was, by his own admission, "numb" as the challenger kept him in his chair. In the end Selby was master and commander, nailing shot after shot as he swept the final three frames.

He said afterwards he'd promised his old man the world title; it was his dying wish. At 30, he finally made good on that vow.


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