Run of the Balls

Tom Woolford 21 February 2008

To the crowd in Newport, Ronnie was gracious in defeat. He had just blown an 8-5 lead by losing four straight frames, in all of which he had clear opportunities to close out the match. Nevertheless, he congratulated his opponent, complimented the crowd, and left the arena disconsolate but dignified. It wasn’t until I returned to Cambridge that I learnt about Ronnie’s later comments: “I don’t know if Mark’s talented; he plays a very negative game”.

I know that Mark’s talented; I saw his talent in person on Sunday night. Despite failing to establish a lead in the afternoon session which he in fact dominated and despite losing 3 of 4 frames at the beginning of the evening session to the Rocket who was completely on top of his game, he didn’t give up.

It was Selby’s ability to not give up, to keep his focus as possible even when being outclassed, that got him through several rounds of the Masters (which he eventually won) last month. Not only is he a fighter, but his tactical play is his major strength. Seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry said that it was Mark’s safety play that was the difference between them in the semi-final. In the final, it was the gulf in concentration, determination and above all, temperament, that caused Selby to put Ronnie off his game and overhaul Ronnie’s advantage in being the more fluent player.

It is O’Sullivan’s equating of talent with gung-ho optimistic shot selection that is the genius’s undoing in so many major tournaments he should have won. Canny opponents, like Peter Ebdon in their infamous encounter at the 2005 World Championships, Marco Fu in the final of the Grand Prix earlier this season, and now Mark Selby, tap into the flaws of Ronnie’s game and play to their strengths. A negative and slow game? Yes, often. Talented? Certainly. Selby has a negative game, and often relies on putting off opponents’ games rather than lighting up the baize with scintillating break-building (in 9 years as a professional his highest break is 141); so his nickname of “The Jester from Leicester” seems somewhat ironic. Spiky hair maketh not a negative player into a great entertainer.

If Ronnie wants to feel aggrieved about the final result, he cannot blame the lack of talent of the opponent who beat him (that, after all, makes no sense), but could plausibly try blaming luck. Selby had an outrageous fluke on a red after missing his intended shot by several inches in frame twelve. If the ball he had cannoned had not trickled in to the yellow pocket, O’Sullivan would have been in the balls for an almost certain (and surely insurmountable) 8-4 lead that he deserved.

As Selby was chasing the game, a couple of his missed shots ran fortuitously safe. But even luck cannot really bear the blame. Ronnie broke down when building breaks to close out the match, and not because of kicks or extra bounce in the cushion. He didn’t cope with the pressure, going for a 50-50 back double in the final frame which he missed, handing his opponent the opportunity to close out the match. O’Sullivan’s mind was never fully on the job. His excellent run at the start of the evening session, capped by a 135 break, only papered over his wandering concentration and desire to win. As he sat in his chair he mouthed “I’m bored” and doodled on a piece of paper.

Perhaps it’s better than the towel over the head he sported at the Welsh Open a few years’ back, but it’s symptomatic of the fact that I was more interested in the match than he was. O’Sullivan moves further clear as provisional world #1, but Murphy, Maguire and Selby (2, 3, and 4 respectively) are without a doubt better bets for the world championships in April.

Tom Woolford