Gonzo Sports Digest; Where are Snooker’s Great Entertainers?

The World Snooker Championship starts tomorrow and I had intended to do some kind of preview, maybe looking for a potential winner, first round upsets and that kind of thing, but if I’m being honest I’ve just not watched enough lately to offer any real insight.

That’s the problem with writing about sport, sometimes you have to cover an event that maybe you don’t know too much about. A lot of the time the audience is probably more clued in than the writer, especially in niche stuff like snooker.

I get caught up in that fairly often in my job, Formula 1 would be the main contender there as I’ve totally lost interest in it as a fan, meaning I only ever watch the racing at work but anyway I digress. The key point being I didn’t want to pull that kind of shit on here.

So instead I’m going to take a look at some comments made to Press Association Sport by Mike Watterson, a former player himself who worked as a promoter and brought snooker’s top prize to Sheffield.

“I don’t think it’s more professional at all. The old pros like John Pulman, Fred Davis and John Spencer, they were playing in working men’s clubs for £40 a night, they were entertainers. If they weren’t making big breaks, they’d be doing trick shots.

“These days they’re just po-faced kids. It all goes back to Steve Davis, he started the rot. We used to call him the Romford Robot. He’s a very nice guy and he was so professional in a playing point of view.

“The other lads would show a bit of character and personality.

“Then of course you got Stephen Hendry. He was very shy and he was a follow-on from Steve Davis.”

Watterson is 73 now and this could quite easily be written off as a ‘things were better back in my day’ kind of rant from an old-timer.  But in fairness there’s more than a smidgen of truth in his observations.

Davis is a great pundit; he’s insightful, quite the raconteur and a big personality – but as a player he was boring as hell. It is easy to forget that when he’s having a chinwag with Hazel Irvine on a BBC couch.  Hendry was slightly more enjoyable to watch around the table but he’s a truly awful pundit, devoid of charisma. Both were exceptional ‘match players’, by that I mean winning is all important and how you do it is almost irrelevant.

There are loads of guys around now who loosely fit that mould, going through this year’s World Championship draw I’d pick out Ali Carter, Martin Gould, Graeme Dott, Peter Ebdon to name a few and, of course, the masters of ‘match play’ Mark Selby and Neil Robertson.

I don’t necessarily think all of these guys are boring, Robertson for example can be exhilarating when in full flight. But for these players and countless others, results are the be all and end all and the spectacle is often sacrificed.

The true entertainers are those who don’t mind taking the odd risk to get a frame smashed off quickly. The guys who see safety shots as a last resort and will blow the reds open at the earliest opportunity. The Jimmy Whites, the Alex Higgins characters and the Tony Dragos….  Obviously Ronnie O’Sullivan fits the bill and Judd Trump with his ‘naughty snooker’ definitely goes into the ‘entertainer’ category but aside from those two, who are we looking at?

John Higgins has drifted more into the pragmatic type these days.  That’s fair enough, he probably wants to stay at the top level for as long as he can and has decided that’s the best way to do it.  Mark Allen, Ding Junhui and Stuart Bingham, the current world champion, probably deserve a mention but no more than that.

I’ve always been more of an occasional than hardcore snooker fan.  I make an effort to watch the ‘Triple Crown’ events but the others I can take or leave most of the time, usually my interest builds ahead of the Crucible but not so much this year, and perhaps that’s due to a lack of players on the tour who are genuinely looking to put on a display as well as winning titles.

Maybe they are just “po-faced kids” but regardless I’ll still be watching the World Championship.  I suppose if World Snooker want to make the game more entertaining and encourage risks there has got to be some incentive to do so, and ten grand for a maximum apparently doesn’t cut it anymore.

Further reading;

Mike Watterson full interview

World Championship draw

O’Sullivan snubs 147 video

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Ronnie O’Sullivan; The New Master of the Mind Game

Ronnie O’Sullivan knows all about mind games. On many, many occasions he’s inadvertently lost a mental battle with himself and now he’s seemingly turning that on his opponents.

The 2009 World Championship when he crashed out 13-11 in the second round to Mark Allen having been ahead going into the final session springs to mind. More recent examples include his Crucible exit to Stuart Bingham and last year’s The Masters humbling at the hands of Neil Robertson.  Any player can lose to any player in snooker… but the manner of some of his defeats over the course of his career have suggested he’s defeated himself rather than necessarily been beaten.

But now ‘The Rocket’ is a different kind of player.  By missing tournaments the others always have the threat of O’Sullivan hanging over them, apparently primed for a return at any given point.

Never has an absence been so noticeable in sport and you have to wonder what impact that has on the other guys, even someone as experienced and capable as Mark Selby, who was put to the sword on Thursday.

Selby is the current world number one, has won the Triple Crown, is a five-time The Masters finalist – winning it on three occasions – and the bookmakers couldn’t really split them pre-match, with the Leicester man a marginal underdog.  O’Sullivan swatted him aside 6-3, completing the victory with an awesome clearance having trailed 70-0 to win the ninth frame 73-70 – indeed snooker legend Steve Davis branded it one of the greatest clearances of all time in the immediate aftermath.

A vintage performance essentially; but not according to the man himself.

Speaking to the BBC afterwards he gave us these insights on his game.

“I don’t feel that great to be honest with you.  I’m just trying to kid myself that I’m confident.”

“Unless I start playing as if I’m confident then I’ve probably got no chance, and that probably won the game.”

As an abstract idea what he’s saying makes sense, theoretically, but it does not reflect anything I saw from that performance. I can’t believe after watching him against Selby that he’s not feeling pretty good, and besides manufactured confidence is surely as good as the naturally occurring kind.

Whether he knows he’s doing it or not; these post-match interviews where he alludes to feeling like a man in the midst of a Tiger Woods-esque case of the yips after dismantling a player of Selby’s standard are mind games.

Because all the other players will be aware of it – and that is bound to put some pressure on.  I have no idea what to make of his comments and I’m not facing the prospect of having to beat him to win The Masters… who knows what’s going on in their respective, mildly panicked minds? Whatever it is – it won’t be ‘what will I spend my winner’s prize on?’

For almost the entirety of his career questions, both external and internal, over his mentality have dogged O’Sullivan but perhaps now something inside him has turned the tables.  He may not be fully conscious of what is happening or what he’s doing, but maybe the gremlins are on his side now and a man who once struggled with self sabotaging tendencies has potentially become one of the true masters of the psychological battle.

Perhaps he’ll alter his stance if he books a place in The Masters final after seeing off either Stuart Bingham or John Higgins, but right now I’m left wondering who is he trying to kid? Because whoever it is – it’s probably working.

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UK Championship: The Contenders

The current format of the UK Championship sees 128 players battling for the title, if I was in charge I’d have qualifiers and start at a last 16 or 32 but I’m not Barry Hearn so that’s not my call.  The first round is a best of 11 frames though so you would imagine the cream will rise to the top but chances are there will be a few surprise casualties early doors (Ali Carter and Alan McManus fell at the first hurdle last year).  With that in mind maybe I’ll do another similar piece before the last 32 when for me the contest will start in earnest, but these are the guys I think are worth watching out for ahead of the start of the tournament tomorrow.

Stuart Bingham

Bingham has struggled for form since his Crucible success in the spring but as the world champion he’s got to have top billing here, especially in the absence of defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan.  Bingham has to get used to being the man to beat now he’s taken the biggest prize in the sport and maybe he hasn’t quite managed it yet.  Previously he was one of the ‘other guys’ but now he’s a scalp for lesser known players.  He’s a top price 22/1 and could be worth some consideration, but with three losses in his last five matches he’ll need to find his form quickly.

Judd Trump

Trump is quite rightly ranked as one of the favourites and some bookies have him as short as 4/1.  You can get 6/1 though so it is worth shopping around.  On his day he’s easily one of, if not the, most exciting players to watch but his only ‘Triple Crown’ title came in the 2011 edition of this tournament, although he did get to the final last year, so perhaps overcoming the last hurdle of actually taking trophies still needs to be worked on for the ‘Juddernaught’.

The Other Favourites

Mark Selby and Neil Robertson are the other favourites according to the bookies, with Selby a top price 8/1 and Robertson 13/2.  These two are players I’m not drawn to watch personally but I do appreciate they are top quality, I just prefer more of a gung-ho approach.  That may be a little harsh on Robertson in particular as he is an exceptional break-builder, there is just something about his methodical style that doesn’t really grab me.  That aside, both are more than capable of taking the title.

John Higgins

Writing for the BBC, Stephen Hendry reckons Higgins is the man to beat heading into the UK Championship.  The Scot is available at 16/1 so if you agree with Hendry it might be worth looking into.  He’s already won two ranking titles this year so he’s in cracking form – but he hasn’t managed one of the big three since his last win at the World Championship back in 2011 and personally I’m not sure he’ll take another ‘Triple Crown’ title, regardless of what Hendry reckons.

The UK Championship is the fourth ranking tournament of the season. Higgins has two and the other title belongs to Kyren Wilson, who beat Ding Junhui and Mark Allen on route to the Shanghai final, where he overcame Judd Trump 10-9.  He also reached the Champion of Champions semi-finals so is in form. However, he’s only managed to reach the first round of one of the big three events three times (twice the last 128 in the UKs, which means very little) so anything in York would be a breakthrough of sorts and he’s priced at 80/1.

Mark Allen

When Bingham secured the trophy in Sheffield earlier this year he revealed a throwaway comment from Allen saying he had ‘no bottle’ proved to be a turning point for him in terms of going on and winning titles.  Bizarrely that statement could now apply to the Northern Irishman himself as he’s not really been able to convert his undoubted talent into titles, with just two ranking tournament victories to his name. He hasn’t managed one of the big three just yet but if I do have a flutter on this I think I might have a punt on Allen at 24/1, just because I feel he’s due a big win and that’s a big price.  It would be good for the sport too I feel as he is such a huge personality and one of the few who is really prepared to speak his mind.  He’s been in pretty good form this year having reached the final of the Champion of Champions event, the semi-finals in Shanghai and the quarters at the International Championship and shouldn’t fear anyone at the Barbican.

Ding Junhui & Shaun Murphy

These guys both deserve their own sections but I’ve gone on a bit here so I’ll wrap it up.  Ding had a pretty poor season last year but did reach the quarter finals at the Crucible and followed that up with a last eight appearance in Shanghai.  He’s also won the UKs twice so at 14/1 he could be worth a look.  Murphy seems to come alive in the biggest events (having won all three once) and shouldn’t be discounted at a top price of 10/1.

There are quite a few others worth a mention, Barry Hawkins at 33/1 for example, but this is already too long so I’ll call it a day for now.  I’ll try and do another preview either before the last 32 or the last 16 when it gets really interesting.

I’ve used Oddschecker for the best prices.

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Rocket Ronnie O’Sullivan Ready To fire again, maybe

Ronnie O’Sullivan hasn’t given up snooker but he hasn’t offered any kind of time frame as to when he might make a return.

Previously, I covered his absence from the sport in a bit of depth so I won’t do it again and we’ll keep this fairly brief.

He hasn’t played since his quarter-final defeat to eventual champion Stuart Bingham at the World Championship and won’t be defending his title at the UK Championship.

Instead, he’ll be working as a pundit for Eurosport and he’s written a blog piece for them about his future plans.  Sort of anyway – you can read the full thing here.

He says he’s “coming to the end” of his career but crucially, doesn’t say that chapter is now closed.

Another big point is this:

“I don’t want the pressure of being the top man in snooker any more. I feel that should be left to the new generation of players.”

I’m not sure he will ever not be the ‘top man’ as long as he is still playing, such is his draw and appeal to even the most casual of snooker fans.  I do like the sentiment though and perhaps it is time for the likes of Judd Trump, Mark Allen, Ding Junhui, Bingham etc to step up – and the opportunity is certainly there with or without ‘The Rocket’, who admits he has a bit of ring rust to shake off after his lengthy absence from the professional game.

 “I know my game is way off where it should be in certain aspects. That’s natural as I’ve not played competitively for over seven months, but I can still pot a few.

“My safety game would need sharpening up, but that would come from a few competitive matches.

“My long game could also be better, but in the balls I still feel good, and that’s what keeps me going. I can make breaks and create opportunities. That’s what I love.”

I’d be amazed if he doesn’t have at least one more crack at the Crucible, it would be a shame if he just let his career fizzle out with hints of a return that never materialise.  Whether he would go into it saying it will be his last tournament I’m not so sure, that’s just putting extra pressure on yourself and in a game like snooker where mental strength can be key that’s just foolish.

Will he return this year?  That’s anyone’s guess.  There are enough tournaments for him to find his form between now and next spring, obviously, but he could leave it until 2017 and try and get most of a season in beforehand.  The Eurosport article isn’t particularly revealing as interesting as it is – but it does offer a glimmer of hope that he isn’t quite done just yet.