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Snooker finds its X Factor

By Bryn Palmer

Ronnie O'Sullivan and Mark Selby shake hands before their epic Masters final clash
O'Sullivan v Selby is a clash of personalities as well as styles of play

There was a moment in Sunday's epic Masters final that suggests snooker is in rather ruder health than Ronnie O'Sullivan would have us believe.

Mark Selby had just heard the shouts of "Come on Ronnie" grow louder in intensity at a partisan Wembley Arena.

For the second time in an enthralling evening session, "The Rocket" had come back from the dead to steal a frame on the black, and not just any frame either.

It was the 17th, and instead of finding himself one frame away from retaining the Masters crown he won at the first attempt 12 months ago, Selby - 9-8 down - now needed to win both the last two frames.

A cagey start to the 18th frame ensued, the clock ticked past midnight, and referee Jan Verhaas suggested a re-rack to end the stalemate. Both players agreed.

Minutes later O'Sullivan was again trying to feather the white cue ball mere millimetres into the reds clustered around it, and Verhaas gave both players another enquiring look.

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But this time O'Sullivan, at least initially, was inclined to see if Selby would play his way out of another claustrophobic situation.

"He's so boring, isn't he?" a grinning Selby quipped, sending the crowd, largely in O'Sullivan's favour but revelling in a gripping encounter, into raptures.

Ronnie, clearly enjoying the occasion, allowed himself a wry smile too.

On the face of it Selby, the world number four, has done little to live up to his "Jester from Leicester" moniker around the table, but his riposte was illuminating.

Although perfectly timed to lift the tension as the match neared its conclusion, it was also a reminder these two players have "previous" and the seeds of a potentially great rivalry.

Their last meeting, in the Welsh Open final last February, also witnessed two re-racks, in the seventh and eight frames. Ronnie had earlier been seen mouthing "I'm bored" when Selby was contemplating his next shot.

On that occasion, Selby came from 8-5 down to win 9-8 to claim his first ranking title, after which O'Sullivan complained about his opponent's tactics.

"I don't know if Mark's talented, he plays a very negative game," said the world number one.

"He doesn't take a ball on unless he's going to leave it safe. It makes him tough to play against because you know you're in for long frames and long bouts of safety."

At one point in Sunday's Masters final, when Selby took two-and-a-half minutes to decide on a shot, O'Sullivan - whether deliberately or not - showed what he thought by attempting to balance his cue on the finger of one hand, in apparent boredom.

Mark Selby
Selby has not always lived up to his nickname

It was an alternative to the method he used in his 2007 UK Championship semi-final win over Selby, a match he clinched with a maximum 147 in another last-frame decider.

On that occasion he counted spots on the side of a spoon as a "little mental exercise" to keep his frustration at bay. There were 108 on either side apparently.

In his moment of triumph on Sunday, O'Sullivan said he was "fighting his emotions" all day, and part of his obvious pleasure at winning - remarkably with a brand-new cue - was he managed to keep those emotions in check and "compete all the way to the end".

Famously, that has not always been the case. There was the towel-over-the-head episode against Peter Ebdon, another frustrating opponent, at the World Championship, and the infamous walk-out against Stephen Hendry at the UK Championship.

But as their last three encounters in ranking events demonstrate (9-8 to O'Sullivan, 9-8 to Selby, 10-8 to O'Sullivan), the two players are evenly matched on the table, a classic contrast between O'Sullivan's innate talent and Selby's doughty temperament.

If snooker is looking for a focal point, a rivalry to draw more fans in, theirs could be it. As O'Sullivan noted afterwards: "It is always a 50/50 match with me and him now whenever we play, and I am just pleased to come out on top. I laaave it!"

Snooker's golden age was built on the classic confrontations between Steve Davis and Alex Higgins, Davis and Jimmy White, Davis and Stephen Hendry, Hendry and White.

Steve Davis and Alex Higgins were chalk and cheese - on and off the table
Snooker has a tradition of contrasting personalities forming fierce rivalries

Those rivalries were built around the contrast in style and character of the players.

There was the unflappable, methodical machine (Davis), pitted against the brilliant natural flair of first "The Hurricane" (Higgins), then "The Whirlwind" (White), before the hot-shot Scot (Hendry) came along to eclipse Davis and White in the 1990s.

With the current talk in tennis of the "Fab Four" - Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray - ushering in a great era for the sport, snooker - "dying" or not - could be on the verge of a similarly prosperous period.

O'Sullivan, 33, and Selby, 25, have not emerged together but both players have raised their games to a peak over the last 18 months.

Since ending a three-year ranking event drought with his fourth UK title in December 2007, O'Sullivan has gone on to win a third World Championship last May, the Northern Ireland Trophy in August (his 21st ranking title) and now a fourth Masters title.

Selby, since reaching the World Championship final in 2007 (when he lost to John Higgins after an epic comeback), lost that final-frame decider to O'Sullivan in the UK semi-final later that year, won the Masters at the first attempt 12 months ago, and his first ranking title, the Welsh Open, last February, which he will defend next month.

Such was the standard throughout the Masters though that the elite group is not limited to the four players who progressed to the semi-finals - also including Stephen "On Fire" Maguire and Higgins, the two-time world champion.

Throw in the world number three and UK champion Shaun Murphy, "The Melbourne Machine" Neil Robertson, Chinese sensation Ding Junhui, Ali "The Captain" Carter, top Welshman Ryan Day, Hong Kong's Marco Fu and Northern Irish tyro Mark Allen, and you can make a case for a "Sizzling Six", an "Electric Eight" or even, er, a "Top Ten".

As Steve Davis, enthusing about "what an advert for snooker" Sunday's final was, put it: "If Ronnie is going to stay at the top, he has got to keep his mind on the job. The standard is getting better and better, and who knows where it is going to end up?"



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see also
Snooker droopy?
13 Jan 09 |  Snooker
O'Sullivan wants X Factor glitz
12 Jan 09 |  Snooker
Higgins open to Crucible switch
20 Oct 08 |  Snooker
Snooker on the BBC
16 Sep 08 |  Snooker


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