Snooker. For a sport that identifies itself in such innocent terms — think tight waistcoats, polite applause and John Virgo getting excited whenever the cue ball goes within six inches of a pocket — it is perhaps surprising that there should be such a fractured relationship between certain players and its organising body, WPBSA (World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association).
Nonetheless, as Mark Selby lined up to sink the red that would finally decide a contest that had taken up the best part of eleven hours — not to mention my internet allowance — all the allegations of bullying that marred the start of the Championships seemed long forgotten in the minds of all those packed into the auditorium.
Not that this is a surprise given the dramatic nature of the final itself, a veritable cornucopia of thrills that had the sports hack struggling to find a suitable cliché. Trailing 10-4 at teatime the day before, Selby was out of sorts and almost out of the tournament, but then remarkably won 12 of the next 14 frames. It wasn't quite to be a game of two haves, however, as John Higgins reduced his arrears to just one frame with quick-fire breaks of 88 and 111. By this time, commentator Dennis Taylor could not resist a few lines of his own — "the dreaded double kiss", "as long as your opponent needs two frames", etc etc — but for all his philosophising, Selby managed to find an extra gear to push himself over the winning line.
Indeed, this achievement should not be underrated — not only is John Higgins known for his limpid-like qualities at clinging onto matches when all seems lost, but also only three players before Selby had ever recorded successive victories at the World Championships. For better or for worse, professional snooker players have long since swapped the booze for the baize, but the game has not lost its excitement for all that. On one occasion during Monday's final, Higgins managed to go in off the brown three times in a row — a truly million-to-one shot. The crowd cheered, Selby clapped and even Higgins himself found the funny side, grinning to his opponent in a nice gesture that showed the excellent relationship between the pair.
Naturally, it would not be a proper final without a moment of controversy, which Selby duly dished up with the scores neatly poised at 16-14 in favour of the Jester from Leicester. Nestling up to the black, referee Jan Verhaas called a foul, judging Selby to have missed the ball. A long discussion ensued (either he hit it or he didn't?!) which led to, well, nothing, as Jan stuck to his original decision. And, this is hardly the most petty disagreement to have descended upon the Crucible. At the 2013 German Masters — to give just one example amongst many more — the referee asked Ronnie O'Sullivan to tuck his shirt in. He refused, lost the game and was subsequently fined £1000 — one thousand pounds — for his sartorial slip-up.
Then again, the Rocket has always had a somewhat rocky relationship with the authorities. Back in 1996, he was banned for two years for punching a media assistant at the World Championships — fair enough — but since has felt that his status as international superstar and face of the sport has been exploited by those who run the game. Receiving what he perceived to be an intimidating letter from the WPBSA back in January, O'Sullivan has since responded to press questions with mere one-or-two word answers, and before this year's World Championships, had failed to win consecutive matches since his Masters win at the start of the year.
Clearly, Ronnie is a thorn in the side of Barry Hearn, figurehead of the WPBSA and a man never afraid to mince his words. Wary of the threat of 'easy money' in China, Hearn recently issued a stark warning to all those wanting to channel their John Obi Mikel and catch the next plane to Beijing: "while I'm here that will be the end of their professional career". Pretty ominous stuff, and O'Sullivan is not the only player to criticise the regime. Back in 2011, Northern Irish potter Mark Allen — himself not averse to speaking his mind — launched a vitriolic attack on Hearn just 18 months after his appointment, in which he claimed Barry was "just there to make money for himself" and that "the whole tradition of the game is going to pot". Whether the pun was intended or not, only Allen will know, but what is evident from such remarks is that for some, the modern game is increasingly geared towards commercial gain rather than sporting pursuit.