Neil Robertson was brilliant when winning the Tour Championship last week, rather reminding me of that racing analogy about putting your horse away for the winter ahead of big spring targets. After claiming the UK Championship title in December, the Australian had been quiet since, but he managed to peak for the valuable Tour Championship and was a deserving winner.
I do think Robertson's performance at the Celtic Manor illustrates just how taxing the current schedule is on players and as such, it is no surprise that so many of the top players dip in and out of form. They're not machines and having won the Champion Of Champions earlier in the season, Mark Allen hasn’t featured much since, while even Judd Trump looked out of sorts last week.
As for O’Sullivan, that’s five finals in a row he’s lost now and I’m sure he’ll look back on that Welsh Open loss to Jordan Brown and think that was one that got away. Take nothing away from Brown; he is a lovely guy and the Northern Irishman winning his first ranking event was, in my opinion, the best story of the season, but O’Sullivan should have won that match having looked certain to lead 7-5 at one stage.
O’Sullivan never ceases to amaze me, even to this day. Losing in finals is not his style – we’re used to seeing him either get beat early in tournaments or generally go on to win them – but now he’s turned into Mr Consistency. He might not have had too many complaints about losing to John Higgins in the Players Championship final, or even to Robertson on Sunday, given the way that pair played in those matches, but O'Sullivan has only won one ranking title in two years now, for all that victory did come in the World Championship. By his incredibly high standards, you’d have to say he’s been quiet while evidently still having his game in good shape.
Can he win in Sheffield? I wouldn’t rule it out, but he has played a lot of snooker this season and that could catch up with him at some point, while I’d be wary of knee-jerk reactions to Robertson’s win with Sheffield in mind. He has a big chance, of course, but Higgins looked to have World Championship winner written all over him when cantering to victory at the Players Championship before he came unstuck last week.
O’Sullivan says Robertson is the man to beat, but the likes of Trump, Allen and a few others will have something to say about that and as far as the World Championship is concerned, it can sometimes pay to concentrate on players who have been quiet, come into the event fresh, and find their best form at the right time.
Before we get to the Crucible, we have qualifying to get through and the match everyone is talking about is Stephen Hendry against Jimmy White on Monday, which you can watch live on the Eurosport App.
My first reaction on hearing the draw was amazement. You couldn’t have scripted it any better and I thought Hendry summed it up perfectly when he made reference to all the great World Championship finals the pair have fought out, to now be at rock bottom facing off once again.
It’s a great win for snooker with the interest around the match sure to be high, but there are other factors at play that make the encounter even more significant. For White, there is the very real possibility that this will be his last ever professional match. Following his good run at the Gibraltar Open, victory over Hendry should be enough to keep him on the tour next year, but defeat might not save him from slipping off. He might not get another tour card from World Snooker this time around and of all the people he needs to beat in order to add another page to his incredible snooker story, it just had to be Hendry.
There’s no denying that these two champion players enjoyed a fierce rivalry on the table for a number of years, but make no mistake, there has always been great mutual respect for one another away from the table and never any animosity, now or then.
In fact, back when Hendry first came on the tour, he was such a quiet lad that we all struggled to get a word out of him. He had an inner determination that you wouldn’t miss, but he was shy and took a while to come out of himself. I finally got to know him better when he came on trips abroad and what quickly became apparent was that Hendry idolized White. White was his hero and it got to the point where Hendry’s manager had to step in and get him to concentrate on himself and his own game. Any notion that the pair didn’t get on was a myth; White was Hendry’s hero and the former is just too good a man to fall out with people.
The biggest irony is that they’ve actually been practising together in recent weeks, trying to help each other’s games, and now they’ve got to do it for real in a match that is sure to dominate the build up to the main event.
Hendry actually asked me the other day who I thought would start favourite and I replied, ‘I’d go 5/6 the pair’, which I think is about right. Hendry played well on his comeback against Matt Selt and I still think he’ll score – he was still a very, very good player when he retired, don’t forget – but White has been playing matches all season and is entitled to be sharper. It’s a fascinating game of snooker, a toss of a coin match, and I’m just looking forward to it.
As I’ve already alluded to, the match will have a big bearing on White’s future on the table and he isn’t the only one, with lots of very capable players needing to win matches in qualifying in order to stay on the tour.
I do think it’s a great shame for those that have been impacted by Covid-19 and someone like Daniel Wells now finds himself in big trouble following two positive tests earlier in the season that forced him to miss a couple of tournaments. It’s harsh on him, and others in a similar boat, and you have to feel for them. We must not forget that we’re lucky to have enjoyed as much snooker as we have, despite the circumstances, but it’s been tough on some players in the lower echelons of the game and you just hope they can bounce back quickly.
Away from the ‘big one’ I don’t foresee too many shocks with any number of class acts in qualifying sure to have the seeds hiding behind their sofas when the first-round draw is made. Stuart Bingham was winning the Masters not so long ago, while Graeme Dott is another former world champion who is always a hard man to beat and will be hopeful of getting through qualifying.
Ali Carter is yet another fine player whose Crucible pedigree marks him out as a danger man and looking ahead, I think you’d want to avoid those players opposed to the rookies who all too often find their first experience of the Crucible overwhelming. The most remarkable statistic to come out of the Tour Championship was to learn that all eight players on show last week – the top eight players in the world at present – were beaten on their Crucible debuts. Be under no illusions, the Crucible really can be the Lion’s Den.
Of the rookies, Carter will have to be on his mettle if he meets Pang Junxu, a very good young player who I have a lot of time for, while Sam Craigie is dangerous and finds himself in a really interesting section along with Zhao Xintong, Hossein Vafaei and Jackson Page. That will take some winning, but all are more than capable of performing on the big stage.
Whatever happens, we’re in for some enthralling snooker before the Crucible takes over the baton and a 17-day marathon stands in the way of the new world champion. I’ll be back before then to offer my final pre-tournament verdict. Who knows, I might even be talking about yet another Crucible appearance for Hendry or White. I do hope so.