In the news …

As you would expect with the Masters starting tomorrow there is more about snooker than usual in the papers.
Here are a few that caught my attention:

In this one Mark Williams explains coming to terms with his dip of form and being more relaxed as helped him to actually return to the elite. He also tells us how he feels about playing Ronnie at the Masters.

Betfair Big Interview: Mark Williams on getting back to the top and facing Ronnie O’Sullivan

Hi Mark. When you last won this in 2003 it was part of your triple crown. All these years later there is still only you, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry to win all three in the same season – what does that mean to you?
Unbelievable really, because it is something nobody can take away from you. When you think of all the top players there have been in the game, I’m amazed nobody else has done it. If you don’t win any more they can’t take away from you that you actually did achieve it.
It must still be in your mind that you want to do things like that again?
Well it is and it isn’t. I’ve sort of accepted now that my game is miles off what it used to be, and I don’t get too down on myself any more. I’m playing more for enjoyment and trying to compete, rather than to win tournaments.
Fine, but to have worked your way back up the rankings like you have done you must have put a lot of work in.
Well yes, I do practise a bit, not loads. I’ve put myself back in the top 16 but sometimes I look at it and think I don’t know how. I don’t think I’m playing any good, I’m just playing my best and I have a good match every so often. The balls I miss now, I can’t believe I can miss anything on the table. But I don’t beat myself up any more and I’m happy. I’m still tough to beat at times and I keep trying.
You’re not being fair to yourself. You had the highest Championship League break with 144 this week.
Yes I had 144, but you can take it that overall my form was awful, rubbish. I had 144 and might have had another 100 here and there, but overall I was poor. No point me lying and saying I’m playing well enough to win tournaments, the fact is I’m not. Nowhere near well enough. But I’m still trying my best.
Can you enjoy that though?
When my form declined for a few years I was losing, playing poorly, and beating myself up, thinking I never used to miss this or that. But I heard Steve Davis on an interview and I took note of what he said. He was right. I just had to accept I wasn’t as good and would never be as good. I think he hit the nail on the head, and I’ve come to accept it and I’m enjoying it more because of that.
So to the Masters. Do you like the Ally Pally format?
It’s brilliant. That’s what everybody plays for with the one table set-up and massive crowds. It’s been a long, long time since I played in that sort of arena, I’ve not been there for three years. Last year my main aim on the tour was to get back to the Crucible, and this year the only thing I had on my list was to get back to the Masters. I’ve done that now, and I’m going to enjoy it.
If you wanted a big occasion you couldn’t have a better draw than playing Ronnie O’Sullivan first round?
It will be a great occasion, whether I beat him 6-5 or lose 6-0 I’ll enjoy every minute, but put it this way, I’d rather have played any other player. Let’s not beat around the bush, it doesn’t matter if he’s had a year off or 24 months off. He’s still so far in front of every other player in the game. There’s not one player that can get anywhere near his standard. If any player disagrees with that I’d say they are lying. No-one can touch him.
So if he comes with his A game he wins the tournament? He’s favourite in our market.
Every time I’ve played him he always turns up with his A game. I wish once or twice he’d bring his B or C game, but he never seems to! I’m more than capable of beating him, no question, I’m just saying he’s the best in the world by an absolute mile.
So if you wanted a challenge for a return to the Masters, you couldn’t get a bigger one.
Well I’d rather play Willie Thorne or Joe Johnson! It is what it is. It’s a bad draw for me in one way because it’s so tough, but a good one in another. It will be a full house, packed, great atmosphere, the sort of thing I remember from 10 or 15 years ago.
You’ve been talking almost as if you see this as a last season?
Definitely not. There were times I thought it was time to finish. I did think of that, no question. But the thing Steve said when he talked about being at a crossroads, it can eat away at you. I’ve come to terms with it now and I’m definitely enjoying it more because I’m not putting pressure on myself to win anything, and because of that I think that’s why my form has improved. It’s not great but has definitely improved.
So the best chance of winning something is you’re not bothered if you do.
It sounds daft but exactly right. I’m not expected to win any more so there’s no pressure on me. But you never know, I might sneak up. Who knows? I’ll give it my best.
We hope it happens for you, and we’ve a free £50 bet for a charity of your choice to say thank you for your time.
Everything I do is for the school in my little village – Cwm Primary School – to try to keep it open. I’m a Manchester United fan and I’ll back them at 8.80 to win the FA Cup.

Earlier this week, Neil Robertson took a strong stance against Ronnie’s suggestion that snooker would benefit from a more “darts like” atmosphere in some events but not all pros share Neil’s views. In this interview Barry Hawkins states that, in his opinion, Ronnie’s idea could work and bring something fresh to the sport. He also explains how taking time out of the game when he felt the need to do so has helped him regain his motivation and rekindle his form.

Five-time world champion O’Sullivan is a regular visitor to the PDC World Darts Championship at Alexandra Palace, where the chanting and singing from the crowd brings plenty of noise to the occasion as they spur the players on.

O’Sullivan recently asked his Twitter followers if they would like a darts atmosphere at snooker events and after a mixed response, added: “Ok we will do one and see how it goes, I will play (Judd) Trump first and see if it’s what the public wants.”

Hawkins is open to the Rocket’s idea if it appeals to the public, but doesn’t think it would work for the majors, such as the Masters which begins at Alexandra Palace next week.

The Kent cueman told “I can understand what he means, to inject a bit more fun for a couple of events. But I think for the bigger events I’m not sure you can do that sort of thing with snooker.

“To jazz a few events up for something a bit different – I’m all for it. We’ll get used to the noise being made after a while so it probably won’t be too off putting!

“Having a few events like that certainly wouldn’t hurt and it could make snooker more appealing to the public I suppose.

“Playing in snooker clubs over the years you do get used to background noise so a bit of shouting at some tournaments shouldn’t affect anyone – as long as it’s not the really big events.

“The Shoot Out event in Blackpool is a bit like that and the fans and players seem to enjoy the atmosphere – so why not have it for a couple more tournaments?”

Hawkins is currently setting his sights on trying to win his first ever match at the Masters, where he will face close friend Joe Perry in the first round next week.

The 36-year-old has been knocked out in his opening game in each of the last three years while he also fell at the first hurdle in his other two appearances in 2007 and 2008 – so he’s eager to finally break his duck.

He said: “I’ve never won a game in the Masters although I’ve come close a couple of times. Last year I fell apart so it would be nice just to get a win and feel like I’m in the thick of it.

“Joe is a good friend of mine on the tour so it’s not an ideal draw really – he’s been doing well the last couple of years although you could never expect an easy game at the Masters. Every opponent is tough.

“I’ll be over the moon if I can get past him and be right at the heart of the tournament.

“I’ve played well a couple of times at Alexandra Palace and then thrown a couple away – but they’re all tough matches at the Masters. You’re always playing a top player so it’s easy to get knocked out.

“If I go there and play how I know I can then I’ve got a good chance of getting through. It’s a great set-up there and the venue creates a great atmosphere to play in so I just hope I can do myself justice and enjoy it.”

This time last year Hawkins admitted he had fallen out of the game due to the amount of travelling but 12 months on he’s cut down on his schedule and hopes he can reap the benefits of feeling fresher.

Hawkins, who ended last season by reaching World Championship semi-finals, said: “I felt like I had a bit of a kick up the bum over the past season or so and I really want to get back to playing to my best and I’ll do that by putting in the hard work.

“I know I’ve just got to get on with it and stop moaning about the travelling too much and hopefully the results will start to come back.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ve got playing so I need to keep the right attitude.

“I’ve been more selective with the competitions I enter this season. I missed the Australian Open and I’ve not entered a couple of the Players Tour Championship events although I did win the first of those in Riga which put me in a good position to do that.

“Normally I’d play in everything but I decided to miss them – I didn’t fancy going so it felt like the right decision for me. I think I’ve got to play the season a bit by ear – if I get fed up with it then it’s perhaps best to leave some events but as long as I’m feeling alright then I’ll play.

“Not all of us can cut down on events like Ronnie O’Sullivan has done because we’ve got to earn money. He’s probably in a more fortunate position than myself and doesn’t need the money as much.

“I’ve got to do what’s right for me. Sometimes I get fed up with it and need a break but at the moment I’m hungry to put the work in and try to get some good results again before the World Championship ideally.”

Another player who has taken an even more selective approach to the season is of course O’Sullivan, who will make his competitive return to action since last April’s world championship when he faces Mark Williams at Alexandra Palace on Tuesday.

The Rocket recently revealed he doesn’t want the pressure of being the “top man” in snooker anymore but Hawkins, who lost to O’Sullivan in the 2013 World Championship final, still believes he’s the best around.

He said: “I still think players still rate him as the best out there – he certainly is in my eyes. He is still able to intimidate players like he used to, that’s for sure.

“I can understand where he’s coming from about the pressure. He’s been at the top for so long with all those eyes on him so it is a lot of expectation on his shoulders.

“But I think he copes with it all brilliantly. He goes out there and performs all the time to a great standard even with everyone expecting him to entertain.”

And finally this interview with Jimmy White in the Telegraph. Jimmy reflects on Ronnie’s OBE, on Ronnie’s form and chances in the Masters, on how he hopes the Welsh Legends Cup event in Cardiff could help revive the World Doubles Championship and how is own love for the game is still intact as are his hopes to be World Champion one day.

There was a surprise in the New Year’s honours list, not least for the recipient himself. Listed alongside some of the more expected sporting names – Tony McCoy, Chris Froome and Fara Williams – one leapt out. It was Ronnie O’Sullivan, a new Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
Just like his hero Jimmy White (himself an MBE) and the late Alex Higgins, O’Sullivan has always seemed rather to stand outside of the establishment even if a towering 24-year contribution to professional snooker has actually made such recognition long overdue. White, naturally, is thrilled by the news and, while O’Sullivan did once say it would be “a disgrace” to give him a gong, he and his family were apparently delighted.
“I’m absolutely made up for him,” says White. “People appreciate anyone who takes chances – they like a bit of flair. What people also don’t realise is that he does an awful lot for snooker and charity. He does it quietly – he’s not one of these headline-grabbers.”
O’Sullivan has certainly been out of the headlines recently. He has taken another sabbatical from the main snooker circuit since the World Championship last April but makes his television return at the Masters tournament that begins at the Alexandra Palace in London on Sunday. Before that, he will appear on Friday night at St David’s Hall in Cardiff alongside White in a doubles event against Welsh pair Mark Williams and Matthew Stevens.
O’Sullivan’s earliest memory of White was him winning the World Doubles Championship with Higgins in 1984. The post-match interview for their semi-final win very memorably culminated with a clearly inebriated Higgins delivering an impromptu sing and dance performance and there is a hope now that the tournament can be revived. The thought of bridging three generations by winning that title again with O’Sullivan certainly excites White.
“It was one of the highlights of my career so to be now partnering O’Sullivan 32 years later is very special,” he says. “You’ve had Alex Higgins, then you had myself and thank God you have O’Sullivan. Judd Trump is also coming. In sport there are some people you can watch. It’s that attacking style, going for our shots. Some of them are ridiculous and some of them can turn matches. I really think this match in Cardiff will bring the doubles back. If it does, I will be partnering O’Sullivan. I have already told him that.”
White’s own career has now spanned almost four decades and, having played just about every modern-day great when they were at or near their peak, there is no hesitation in his judgment that O’Sullivan is the finest in snooker history. “His cue-ball control is almost perfection – he’s the best player I’ve ever seen,” says White, before pausing to add, “besides myself obviously”.
O’Sullivan turned 40 in December but believes that a slight dip in the standard since the days he was dominating with Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and Mark Williams can help keep him competitive. He admitted on his weekly Phoenix FM radio show that he was becoming weary of people asking whether he would play again. “I didn’t have an honest answer,” said O’Sullivan. “There was part of me that missed it and part of me that thought this is suiting me. I’m happy. I thought if I’m going to do the exhibitions it’s important to do some tournaments. I want to give a bit back to the snooker fans as well.
“It’s finding a balance. I thought if I’m not going to play snooker I’d probably have to leave this country for about two years before everyone says, ‘We haven’t see him a while’ and they forget about you.”
The winner in O’Sullivan, though, means that his comeback is being taken seriously. He describes starting practice again as “a bit like a Rocky film” and has been playing in some minor competitions.
In response to a question about how well O’Sullivan is playing, White simply advises me to check the scores in this week’s Championship League.
For the record, O’Sullivan won eight out of eight matches against some of the best players in the world, including 3-0 scorelines in the semi-final and final. He also took his already unprecedented tally of career centuries past 800 and set himself the target of reaching 1,000. White’s love for snooker is also such that, even at 53, there is no end in sight. It is almost a decade since he last appeared in the final stages of the World Championship at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.
“Snooker still fascinates me and I still get a buzz from it,” says White. “I’m not finished. I will get back to the Crucible once more.”