Neal Foulds snooker column: Eurosport and ITV pundit on Ronnie O’Sullivan’s Masters bid
By Neal Foulds
Crowds set to return at the Masters
There won’t be many snooker fans who don’t love the Masters, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to getting back to Alexandra Palace for this special event, one which we welcome back home this year following the staging of the tournament behind closed doors in Milton Keynes 12 months ago.
The Wembley Conference Centre was such an iconic venue with a great atmosphere that it was always going to be hard to replicate that elsewhere, but Ally Pally has managed to make the event its own and in 2020 – the last time we were here before the pandemic – the atmosphere was electric throughout and the venue exceptional, with new additions such as the Century Club adding another dimension for spectators.
I watched a little bit of the darts over Christmas which was staged at the same venue, and while I’m not in any way condoning some of the behaviour from over-enthusiastic fans that met with some stern criticism from some quarters, I would generally be inclined to cut sports fans some slack.
Bad behaviour is bad behaviour, and we don’t want to see it, but we must remember that for many people this week, this will be the first live snooker they’ve seen in two years. The Masters has always been a meeting point for many people in the South and for some, they might be seeing their friends again for the first time in 24 months.
The Masters is always a lively atmosphere and people in London love their snooker. Those people will be desperately excited to have snooker back and sports fans in general have been through a lot through this pandemic, have missed out on a lot, and now must put up with more strict protocols just to see snooker at Ally Pally this week. We thank them for that and I hope everyone has a good time – just don’t be surprised if the roof comes off should Ronnie O’Sullivan find himself in a big match later in the tournament.
I have some great memories of the Masters, from my playing days and afterwards. I think to even play in the Masters, given the draw is made up of the top 16 players in the world, you feel like you’ve achieved something and there is no doubt that even before the snooker begins, this one feels extra special.
Back in my playing days, the event was sponsored by a tobacco company for many years and they looked after us well and made a big fuss of us. It immediately felt different to playing in anything else and add to the mix that the Wembley Conference Centre was such a huge arena with a passionate crowd, you could easily let things get on top of you.
I lived close to the venue in those days and it was only a 15-minute walk from my home. As a local player, I would get lots of support, but that can sometimes work against you and when I made my Masters debut against Dennis Taylor in 1987, I did struggle a little bit. It probably took me a couple of years to really embrace it all – the venue, the atmosphere, the prestige of the tournament – and that can apply to anyone.
It really is your chance to shine or shrink and I think that’s one of the reasons why you don’t get too many shock winners here. It can take some getting used to and this year’s field features 10 previous winners with 20 Masters titles between them – albeit O’Sullivan has won seven of them. Interestingly, despite being defending champion, this will be Yan Bingtao’s first appearance at Ally Pally having won last year when the event was played behind closed doors in Milton Keynes.
Paul Hunter glory days live long in the memory
Away from memories of my playing days, I think the Paul Hunter era, when he won the title three times in four years between 2001 and 2004, is the Masters memory that stands out most for me. He won every one of those finals 10-9, which is quite remarkable in itself, and the match against O’Sullivan in 2004 is particularly memorable given he came back from 7-2 down to win. Nobody beats O’Sullivan from that position, not at Wembley, but Hunter did.
Hunter sadly passed away two years later, and while that final and his run of Masters victories held significance then, if feels even more poignant now when you look back on his achievements and a career, and life, cut short. There are others, of course, O’Sullivan’s final with Steve Davis and the famous streaker incident, John Higgins clearing up in the deciding frame to beat O’Sullivan in 2006, but Paul Hunter’s name will always be synonymous with the Masters.
Looking ahead to this year’s renewal, I think the most interesting match of the first round is the one between last year’s runner-up, Higgins, and UK Championship winner Zhao Xintong. Higgins might have won this event twice, but by his incredibly high standards that’s not actually that strong a record, and last year’s run represented his first Masters final since 2006. It is no surprise that came behind closed doors and I’m not sure this event and its partisan crowd is something Higgins has really enjoyed over the years.
I suspect the crowd might side with Xintong who has looked in ominous form in the Championship League in recent days, not putting a foot wrong and making big breaks for fun. This match will be something of a contrast in styles and it will be fascinating to see how Xintong handles himself on his Masters debut, always a big occasion for any player.
That’s an intriguing match, as is the one between Mark Allen and Judd Trump, winners of this tournament in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I think Trump has a little bit to prove right now, similarly Allen, and that adds another interesting dimension to a clash between two players who tend to bring the best out in each other.
Despite dominating the sport over the last two years, Trump hasn’t won a Triple Crown event since the 2019 World Championship and, in fact, he’s struggled in a few of them, while he was forced to miss this tournament last year because of a positive Covid-19 test. I’m sure he’ll be keyed up to do well, but the Champion of Champions apart, he hasn’t really fired with the same consistency this term.
As for Allen, he’s a real Jekyll and Hyde performer at the moment, claiming last season’s Champion of Champions title and then barely winning a match thereafter until prevailing at the Northern Ireland Open at the beginning of the current campaign. Once again, he’s done very little since. I know he’s had his issues off the table but, like Trump, he has a few questions to answer this week. As such, I think this is another really interesting tie.
O’Sullivan back in business ahead of Masters bid
The other match that will have punters rubbing their hands together in anticipation is O’Sullivan’s meeting with Jack Lisowski on Tuesday. I do think, given everything he’s achieved this season, that it’s a great shame Scottish Open hero Luca Brecel isn’t in the Masters this year. He deserves to be. But that is no slight on Lisowski who would have been the one to miss out and is a terrific player in his own right, clearly adding something to every tournament he plays.
Nevertheless, I do believe Lisowski is good draw for O’Sullivan who has dominated many of their past matches and clearly enjoys the open, aggressive way Lisowski plays the game. I think O’Sullivan will have the edge again and he’s my fancy to claim what would be his eight Masters crown.
His record here is incredible, with those seven wins coming from 13 finals, and the timing is just perfect on the back of winning the last tournament, the World Grand Prix at the end of December. He’ll have taken so much inspiration from his triumph there, overcoming what appeared to be a struggle for his best form when producing a blistering late burst to beat Neil Robertson.
I’ve had my concerns about O’Sullivan of late. He just didn’t look to be playing as well as he can and the results he was getting, he was having to really work for them. But beating a player of Robertson’s class in that manner, and in a big final, will have done him the power of good.
Furthermore, I wonder if the pressure might just be off him a little bit now. He’d lost in his five previous finals before the World Grand Prix, but nothing beats winning and having proved to himself, and a few others, that he’s still one of the top dogs, he can turn up here with a weight lifted from his shoulders and go out and play in front of a crowd that will always be in his corner.
We know the event suits O’Sullivan well, and I don’t mind his draw at all, while in the bottom half, three-time winner Mark Selby will be hoping for a change of luck having done very little in this event since reaching the final in 2014, and now finds himself presented with a favourable-looking draw.
He’ll need avenge last year’s loss to Stephen Maguire, but the Scot hasn’t enjoyed the best of seasons so far and boasts nothing like the Masters record Selby does. After that for Selby it will be either Shaun Murphy or Barry Hawkins, who have hardly pulled up any trees of late.
Selby’s own form is hard to have full confidence in, but before the current world champion started to dominate in Sheffield, this was the tournament that made his career and I’m sure he’ll be desperate to make use of a good draw and kickstart a campaign that has yet to really take flight.
He could prove a live contender, but back at the Masters and in front of what is sure to be so much passionate and loyal support, I’m leaning towards O’Sullivan who has already given us one of the moments of the season and might just be about to write another chapter in the story of this great, old event.
I have nothing to add except a big “Thank you Neal!” for this excellent piece. In many ways, the Masters has always been my favourite tournament: just 16 top players, just one table and great coverage. It’s luxury. I know that the future of our sport isn’t built through such event, but, somehow, it carries on the festive mood a bit longer and it’s one to savour.