2020 Championship League Snooker (2) – Day 4

Day 4 in Milton Keynes saw Matthew Selt and Shaun Murphy progress.

Here is the report by WST:

Shaun Murphy and Matthew Selt won their respective groups at BetVictor Championship League Snooker to progress to Stage Two, where they’ll join Zhou Yuelong and Dominic Dale in Group B.

Murphy met Martin O’Donnell in what was a group decider, although just a point was enough for the former World champion, while O’Donnell needed the win.

Both players had earlier beaten Jimmy White and tour rookie Peter Devlin, but Murphy had done it without dropping a frame, meaning he would finish ahead of O’Donnell should the final match be a 2-2 draw.

However, that didn’t come into it as Murphy saw out a 3-1 win to advance to the next phase of the tournament.

“I am pleased that my game seemed to be there today, I hit some really nice shots among some bad ones and I am through to the next phase,” said Murphy, who was visibly limping at the table during his matches.

“I suffer from Achilles tendonitis and it’s something which has flared up since lockdown. When it comes it is very, very sore and there’s not much I can do about it. I felt it flare up when I was practicing yesterday and tried to ice it as much as I could. It’s painful but we are so fortunate in these times to still have tournaments to come to that you have to just keep pushing on.

“I was chasing snookers in the last frame and didn’t know I was through at the time. I didn’t realise when he missed the pink in the last frame how important that was.”

On table two, Matt Selt took top spot in Group 8 with 3-1 wins over Gao Yang and Si Jiahui before drawing 2-2 with Ben Woollaston to confirm his place in the next phase.

BetVictor Championship League Snooker continues on Thursday with coverage of both tables available at Matchroom.Live.

FINAL GROUP STANDINGS

Group 7

P W D L FW FL +/- PTS
Matthew Selt 3 2 1 0 8 4 4 7
Si Jiahui 3 1 1 1 6 5 1 4
Gao Yang 3 0 2 1 5 7 -2 2
Ben Woollaston 3 0 1 1 4 7 -3 1

 

Group 8

P W D L FW FL +/- PTS
Shaun Murphy 3 3 0 0 9 1 8 9
Martin O’Donnell 3 2 0 1 7 4 3 6
Jimmy White 3 0 1 2 3 8 -5 1
Peter Devlin 3 0 1 2 2 8 -6 1

Again, I only watched one table yesterday, table 2 where group 7 was competing.

For some reason, I found it rather hard to watch. There was little fluency. Matthew Selt played OK. Both young Chinese players showed great potting ability, but were lacking in all other aspects, especially Gao, which is entirely normal given that he’s only 16 and this was his first outing as a professional. Si Jiahui showed great resilience.

What happened to Ben Woollaston since his Welsh Open final in 2015 is hard to understand. I had some hope that he might be coming back when he made to the final Group in the 64 men CLS last June and nearly won it, but now here he is finishing last of the group, with one draw and two defeats. Maybe he just gave priority to spending time with his young family during the inter-season break and didn’t practice much? Still it’s worrying, especially as he also lost heavily in his first match in the World Championship qualifiers in July.

Also regarding Anthony Hamilton … here is the link to a very good interview with Phil Haigh

I picked those two excerpts – bold added by me

‘Obviously Matchroom and World Snooker are run by the same person [Barry Hearn] so it doesn’t make much sense to me,’ Hamilton told Metro.co.uk. ‘ I was down to play this Sunday in the Championship League then the Monday next week in the European Masters. In 24 hours the policy changes, within the same venue.

You’re not supposed to say anything about it, but it’s absolutely nuts, it doesn’t make any sense at all.

and

The former German Masters champion has dismissed the suggestion that he was just out to win some prize money in qualifying, but is not surprised that the WST chairman saw it this way.

‘I fully expected it because we know what Barry’s like,’ Anthony said. ‘For him to be philosophical or phlegmatic about it would be the opposite of what he normally is.

‘I pulled out of the the World Championships before I knew I’d get any points or money and I thought I’d get a fine as well. At the time I probably thought it was 80% likely I’d not get the prize money, the points and I’d get a 500 quid fine on top, and despite that I thought  it was the right decision to pull out.

‘I knew that there would be a crowd, but I foolishly, naively assumed that the safety measures would be more stringent. I assumed there might be a glass partition like in NHL, or maybe no one in the first six rows, something like that.

‘I only saw the seating plan on the day I was travelling to Sheffield for testing, that was the first time and that was the day I decided it was not safe. I got really anxious about it and just felt I had to do the right thing for me.

‘He [Hearn] made his mind up that that’s the way I was thinking but he’s just making his own news.

‘Come on, I haven’t been to the Crucible for 12 years, why wouldn’t I want to play? At 49 I may well not get back there again, it doesn’t make any sense. I’m doing alright for money, I’m not falling off the tour. If I didn’t want to play I wouldn’t have entered, I’m not that sort of guy.

‘But unfortunately for me Barry’s got all the platform to say this and that and I didn’t think it was worthwhile putting my point out there, you get in a tit-for-tat with him, you’ll come off second best.

A strange build-up to the new season

It’s been a strange second half of the 2019/20 season, and it’s a strange start of the new one …

The first event of the season is getting under way on Sunday, it’s a ranking event, but not a WST event; indeed it’s a Matchroom event. The event has its own twitter account. Yesterday we finally got to know the fixtures. But we still don’t know where we will able to watch it, or indeed if we will be able to watch it at all, because it it’s only on chosen betting sites, it’s a “no go” for many of us. People keep asking the question and keep getting “coming soon” as the answer. It may be coming soon, but it’s not coming fast. Let’s hope that like the fabled tortoise it comes out a winner eventually.

WST have got themselves a banner for the new season:

WSTSeasonPoster

It features all the winners of the previous season.

However, the original version, that they used on their twitter account for a short while was this:

WSTSeasonPoster-Trump

Bizarrely, Judd Trump. who was 2019/20 most prolific winner, was missing, leaving a “hole” between Neil Robertson and Ding. It got the fans talking and speculating. I can only suppose that someone at WST made a mistake and picked an unfinished version of the intended image …

That said… Judd Trump actually almost missed the start of the season.

Judd Mykonos Screenshot 2020-09-08 at 15.05.05

Phew!

Now, on a more serious note, WST has been publising some really good interviews in the build-up of the new season. Here are my picks so far:

Kyren Wilson reflects on his run to the World Championship final

Speaking about his rivalry with the Judd Trump, the crazy semi-final against Anthony McGill, the thrill of the walking down the Crucible steps for the Final, applauded by the crowd and learning from the experience.

They interviewed Fan Zhengyi, after his Q-school successful campaign

Fan has really struggled in his two first years as a professional. Shaun Murphy used to claim that if you are good enough, you are old enough, often referring at his own experience of turning professional at 15. What Shaun forgets is that he was surrounded by his family, competing mainly in his own country. Turning pro is a big step, the demands are huge. When, in addition, you have to expatriate, live far away from family and friends, immerge in a completely different culture and learn a completely different language, it can be too much when you are only 17. Fan wasn’t ready. He worked hard and vastly improved towards the end of last season. I’m glad he gets another chance.

They talked to Jamie Wilson, the youngest Q-school graduate

Jamie is a “cuestars” boy and works with Tim Dunkley. He’s only 16. He entered the Q-school mainly to gain experience … and managed to turn professional. Well done!

As well as to “veteran” Rory McLeod

Rory played on the Seniors tour last season. I met him there a few times. He was missing the professional tour terribly. He loves his snooker and is determined to enjoy every match. This season, thanks to the new agreement between WST and WSS he will be able to compete on both tours.

 

More about Stephen Hendry’s return

The announcement yesterday that Stephen Hendry is returning to the professional game was of course a big, big talking point.

It was of course all over the press, so here are a few links you may want to follow

BBC: Stephen Hendry: Seven-time world champion says Crucible return would be ‘incredible’

Eurosport: Stephen Hendry wants to temper expectations, but believes he can compete

And this excellent interview for “A Bola” by my very good friend Antonio Barroso.

The original is in Portuguese, but you can probably get a reasonable translation using google.

In short…

  • Stephen had been working with Steve Feeney before the lockdown and was starting both to enjoy playing again and hitting the ball well. Their work was interrupted by the lockdown, but he went back to practice just ahead of the Seniors 2020 World Snooker Championship, where he reached the semi-finals. Stephen is never satisfied with his game, but recognised that he was playing better and missing the buzz of competing.
  • His return to competition was discussed during a round of golf with Barry Hearn and Mark Williams. BH of course wanted an swift decision … and Stephen is still not sure he understands all the implications of what he has agreed to.
  • He will definitely pick and choose. It’s not a full time return, and he won’t be practising 8 hours/day. Also, he does not want to go to qualifiers. But Barry Hearn warned him that he has to play otherwise he won’t get another chance.
  • Stephen is determined to prepare seriously for the events he decides to enter. He believes that he can still compete, and that, except for Ronnie and Judd Trump, there is nobody on the tour playing at a higher level than the one he had in his prime. He knows that he will be an underdog, and he doesn’t want to put pressure on himself, by entertaining high expectations. But he dreams to be able to play at the Crucible again, to walk down the stairs, and fell the buzz emanating from the place and the crowd.
  • For the immediate future he just wants to be able to play well, enjoy it and see where it takes him. He admits that if he plays badly and embarasses himself, it will be hard to take.
  • His first event will probably be the UK championship. Being at the bottom of the rankings, he’s likely to play one of the very top players on the TV table in the first round. He relishes the challenge, but is not sure how it will go.
  • He insists that the comeback has nothing to do with Ronnie taking his records away from him.

Now, there were too many reactions on social media to mention them all . But I can’t resist to share Mike Dunn’s take on Hendry’s return

MikeDunnWhiteShark

There were fans arguing that those spots should go to deserving young players instead of returning “past glories”. But of course, there is a commercial side to it: Stephen will put bums on seats, he will get lines in the media. He still has many fans. On thing that is often overlooked is that it’s those players who attract sponsors and audience who make it possible to offer decent prize money for all. Every player on the tour benefits from what they bring.

Interesting article and great interview with Ronnie talking life, pressure, expectations and the younger generation.

The Independent published this nice article today 

It covers only a  very small part of a fantastic and fascinating interview published by the Blank Podcast. The link to the full interview can be found in the article and it’s well worth the listen.

Ronnie O’Sullivan: Snooker’s younger generation needed a ‘kick up the a***’

Reigning world champion provoked controversy when he claimed that snooker’s younger players ‘are not that good’

Ronnie O’Sullivan insists he wasn’t trying to offend snooker’s younger generation but give them a “kick up the a***” when he claimed they “are not very good” during last month’s World Championships.

O’Sullivan clinched his sixth title at the Crucible, becoming the tournament’s second-oldest winner at 44, and stirred controversy en route to victory when he claimed: “If you look at the younger players coming through, they are not that good really. Most of them would do well as half-decent amateurs, not even amateurs. They are so bad.”

However, speaking on at The Blank Podcast, O’Sullivan said his comments had been overblown and were in fact an attempt to “inspire” the younger players and provoke them to “prove him wrong”.

“They’re not good enough…whatever I said. I think it’s okay to say stuff like that, I wasn’t slagging anyone off,” he said. “In fact, I was hoping that in some ways it would inspire a lot of the younger generation to kind of go ‘you know what I’m going to prove him wrong’. Because that’s all I’ve done all my life when I was a kid growing up, I’d get knocks and every time I got a knock that just made me more and more determined to what to become better and a better player so for me a knock was fantastic.

“So yeah, I’m knocking them, but I’m also hoping that it gives them a nudge to go you know what I’m going to go and watch a Tiger Woods documentary, I’m going to go and watch a Michael Jordan documentary and see what it takes to be the best and then once I’ve studied them I’m going to take that into my world and I’m going to become the next snooker player I can possibly be. And that’s what I’m saying.”

O’Sullivan singled out Kyren Wilson – who he thrashed 18-8 in the final in Sheffield – for praise but admitted he believes the calibre and quantity of players coming into the game are still in decline.

“Every player on this tour is capable of beating anyone on their day but it’s not good enough to just have a good day, you’ve got to have good months, good years, good decades,” he continued. “We’re not talking about being good enough on the day, we’re talking about having a good career really and days aren’t enough. You have to have good months and years to hang around long enough and that’s what I’m hoping by saying what I said in a way is going to give these youngsters a kick up the a***.

“There are a couple on the circuit; Kyren Wilson is definitely one of them and another guy is Louis Heathcote, I spot that they have what it takes to hang around and get the most out of their career. I just wish there was more players like me, John Higgins, Mark Williams, Steven Maguire, Barry Hawkins that generation of players, I just wish there was an influx of those players coming in but I just don’t see it.”

The story about Ebdon made me laugh.

The whole interview is excellent. Every young aspiring sportsperson should listen to it and most of the advice applies to life in general, not just sports.

Ronnie seems to be in a very good place.

And I’m happy because he pretty much perceives the reasons for the young professionals’ level relative “weakness” the same way I do. It’s not all their fault, and frankly it’s just common sense: to improve the situation invest in the junior amateur scene and go back to a tiered system in most if not all tournaments. Allow for progressive improvement.

Simon Hattenstone interviews Ronnie …

Simon Hattenstone and Ronnie have known each other for years… and they are friends. Simon was with him at the 2007 Masters, in the middle of controversy after he had walked out of his match against Stephen Hendry at the UK championship. Simon helped him through the writing of his biographies. He knows Ronnie inside-out and accepts him as he is. Ronnie in return trusts him.

After winning his sixth World title, Ronnie was interviewed by Simon for The Guardian

‘I was the king of sabotage’: Ronnie O’Sullivan on controversy, comebacks and becoming a carer

Ronnie at Home wit 6th trophy
Ronnie O’Sullivan at home, with his trophy for winning this year’s World Snooker Championship. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

 

The greatest, most charismatic snooker player of all time prefers long-distance running. He discusses drugs, breakdowns, victory – and his unexpected new career path

Simon Hattenstone
Sun 23 Aug 2020 14.00 BST

Ronnie O’Sullivan is driving over from Essex and says he’s bringing a friend. “Gloria’s with me. She’s brilliant. She picks me up when I’m properly on the floor.” It’s only two days since he won the World Snooker Championship – his sixth triumph in the sport’s biggest contest. Why would he be on the floor?

“You must be happy,” I say, when he arrives at my house – he pocketed £500,000 along with the trophy. He laughs. “You know what? I got up this morning and I felt a bit low. And I remembered every time I win a big tournament it puts me on a low. But I’ve accepted it. It’s just part of any high.” Typical Ronnie.

 

O’Sullivan and I go back 19 years. We met just after he had won his first world title, hit it off, and I helped him write two books. No sportsman has ever worn his angst on his sleeve quite like him. To be fair, there has been plenty to have angst about – in 1992, the year he turned professional, aged 16, his father, Ronnie Senior, was jailed for murder. Four years later, his mother, Maria, was jailed for tax evasion, leaving O’Sullivan to look after his younger sister, Danielle. Then came drugs, breakdown and despair. If this sounds bleak, O’Sullivan is also one of the warmest, funniest, most generous people I know.

Today, he is wearing shorts and an old T-shirt full of holes, sprigs of chest hair poking through. Gloria is tiny, smartly dressed and 72 to his 44. They have been close friends for 30 years. She is recovering from a triple heart bypass and oesophageal cancer.

O’Sullivan has changed very little over the years. He could still pass for a Gallagher brother, but occasionally, when he’s knackered, he looks like Aloysius Parker from Thunderbirds. In winning the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield, he secured a record-breaking 37th major snooker title. He was always regarded as the sport’s most naturally gifted player; now the consensus is that he’s the greatest.

Ronnie is called the Rocket for his speed and power. But there is also a sublime grace to his playing – the way he makes the cue ball dance, the delicacy with which he picks off balls and opens up the pack, his balance, the ability to swap from right to left hand depending on his shot or mood. In a sport not overly blessed with charismatic players, he has been the personality of snooker for a quarter of a century.

Then there are the verbals. Every time he opened his mouth in Sheffield he made headlines. Asked why older players like him were still winning, he said it was because of the poor standard of the youngsters. “Most of them would do well as half-decent amateurs, not even amateurs. They are so bad … I would have to lose an arm and a leg to fall out of the top 50.” Sponsors winced and the pundits apologised, saying Ronnie will always be Ronnie.

He was only stating the bleeding obvious, he says today – it’s bonkers that he should win the world title at 44. “I’m getting worse and I’m still winning as a part-timer. It’s an old man’s game now.” He grins. “As I get to 60 I’m going to be in my prime! When I was 28 I thought: ‘I’m going to retire at 30.’ The shelf life used to be about 15 years, now it’s about 50. I’m not sure it’s a good thing though. It’s more depression and anxiety for me.” He has always had a love-hate relationship with snooker. He only plays when he fancies these days, and his critics say he disrespects the sport. But they have always said that.

O’Sullivan is gasping for a cuppa and insists on making it himself. “I said to my mate: ‘How do you get your tea so good?’ He says it’s all about pouring the milk slowly.” He pours it painfully slowly, ever the perfectionist. He is still thinking about the game’s slipping standards. “A lot of the players came up to me and said, ‘You’re 100% right’.”

RonnieLailaOBE

Ronnie O’Sullivan with his partner, Laila Rouass, after receiving an OBE in 2016. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

That wasn’t his only controversial statement. He said he preferred playing at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre with no audience. Again, he says, this makes perfect sense. “My biggest fear is embarrassing myself, and with no crowd there’s no one to embarrass myself in front of. But when somebody’s paid for a ticket and I’m stinking the gaffe out, that’s my worst nightmare.” There was a socially distanced audience for the final. “When they put a crowd in for the final I struggled with it. I thought that if I play bad, how much of a letdown that would be.” He doesn’t mention that he reeled off eight frames on the trot to secure victory.

At his age, he says, he knows he can only win by guile. O’Sullivan studies other sporting greats for inspiration, and explores the mental side of the sport with the psychiatrist Steve Peters. “I said to Steve: ‘I’m not going to win this through talent.’ I watched Tiger Woods win Augusta and he ain’t gonna blast them away winning by 15 shots any more. It’s not about ability, but about who’s got the balls to get it over the line. I said we’ve got to find a way where my mental skills are good enough to sweat it out, be patient and not sabotage. Because I was the king of sabotage.”

Often, he simply didn’t want to be there. In his 30s he became obsessed with middle-distance running. “A lot of the time I would think: ‘I don’t actually want to win this match because I’ve got a five-mile cross-country race I want to win back in Essex.’ Running became more important than snooker. I’d much rather be running in Woodford in October in mud than be in the final of the Northern Irish open in Belfast.” He grins. “Although I love Belfast and playing there.”

Gloria listens as he talks. O’Sullivan says that as well as being one of his most loyal friends, she is also one of his fiercest critics. I ask her where he most often goes wrong. “The friends he chooses,” she says.

When I first met him he was verging on the socially phobic, often terrified of talking to people. In his mid-20s, he ended up in the Priory, suicidal, and was treated for drug addiction. Since then he has, by and large, remained clean. How has he changed? “I’m less scared of people now. And I’ve learned not to be so trusting. I’m no longer interested in fair-weather friends.” Were there many? “Yeah. I was always a bit of a people-pleaser, so I’d go out of my way to overcompensate, and it was draining.”

He says his partner, the actor Laila Rouass, has helped toughen him up – as well as Gloria, of course. “Laila’s just a bit more streetwise than me, a bit more savvy.” A few years ago, he got conned out of £125,000 in a business deal and it floored him. “I was gutted … devastated. It took about three years to get over it – not the money, the trust. I became distrusting of everything and everybody.”

That’s always been his problem, Gloria says, surrounding himself with bad ’uns. “I’m the first one to slag him off if he’s wrong, ’cos that’s what friends are about.” What does she slag him off for most often? “For being stupid, for being too soft-hearted. I tell him to pull himself together and grow a pair of balls.”

O’Sullivan says that is true. “When I surround myself with shit people, she’ll be like, ‘Get the fuck out of here’, to them. I never know it’s going on. She won’t let anyone take a liberty with me. I’m a bit soft and she’s not.”

A year after he was conned he had another breakdown – again at Sheffield, in 2016. “I was in hospital in London in between my first and second round at the World Championship. I was doing too much work, living out of a suitcase, booked too much in. I couldn’t move.”

Now, he is in a good place. He came off medication when he realised it was making him moody and he was taking it out on his son Ronnie. (O’Sullivan has three children.) “I had a go at little Ronnie once ’cos I was on these pills, and it wasn’t his fault. I thought: ‘I’m not letting medication turn me into an irritable old man.’”

RonnieRunning

‘I’d much rather be running in Woodford in October in mud than be in the final of the Northern Irish open in Belfast’ … Ronnie O’Sullivan out running in Birmingham. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

He is sticking with natural serotonin – running. In lockdown he got himself a coach and has not looked back. “I can run for an hour, 7.45- to 8-minute miling. Running is my drug.” He is convinced running makes people happy. “I’ve never seen [Joshua] Cheptegei look unhappy. How can you look unhappy after a 26-mile run? Running just gives you a natural high.”

I ask him for his highlight at this year’s World Championship. His nose twitches with delight. “Running. When I was up there I’d wake up and think: ‘Fuck, I’ve got to do this today’, then at 7.45am I’m running through the peaks and I’ve forgotten about my snooker. I’ve had breakfast, had a shower, had a great run, and I think: ‘Oh, I’ve got to go and play a few games of snooker’, so if the snooker goes shit I’ve already had a good day.

“Running for me is the perfect thing ’cos they are just nice people. It’s not like cycling, where you’ve got to spend £10,000 on a bike. You get a lot of arseholes in that sport because they’ve got money and they think money is the all-important thing. I can’t stand people like that. You don’t get them type of people in the running world.”

I ask him about the future, expecting him to talk about books, endorsements, punditry and a bit of snooker. “The one thing I thought I’d excel in was being in the care industry,” he says. Is he serious? He nods. “I can empathise with people in addiction. It could be addiction, mental health, autism, anything. You’re in the CQC game, so it’s about providing a safe environment and getting people on their feet.

“I was in rehab in 2000 and it was the biggest life-changer for me. It was tough, but what I needed. Without the 12 steps, without taking myself out of society, without going to a treatment centre, maybe I wouldn’t have got to where I am today.” Maybe you wouldn’t be here full stop, I say. He nods. “Yeah, totally.”

He empathises with people who are vulnerable, he says. Would he be an active carer? “Yeah. I’m not going to say I’m going to change people’s nappies, but I want to provide a safe environment for them and make their life as happy as you can … We’re starting off small. One place, six or seven beds. It will probably be a place for people with mild disabilities who don’t need 24-hour care.” He expects to settle on the premises in the next few months. “When I finish playing snooker I want to train as a counsellor. I want to understand the business and the mental health side.”

Ronnieat16

Ronnie O’Sullivan as a 16-year-old snooker player. Photograph: Jim Hutchison/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

What’s behind all this? “I’ve had enough of arseholes. And when I look at these people who need a care home, they just want a roof over their head, three meals a day, you give them a job to do, you take care of them. I’ve had enough of the dog-eat-dog thing. I just want to be in a business where you’re taking care of people.”

“I think he’ll be good at it ’cos that’s where his heart is,” says Gloria. “You were so good to me when I was ill. I think it frightened you a bit.” Lest I think she’s soft, she loses the sentimentality. “He’d earn money from the homes. We all want money, we’ve all got to live.”

O’Sullivan bursts out laughing. “Nobody loves a pound note as much as Gloria!” Anyway, he says, he can run care homes and still play snooker. And maybe there will even be time for a bit of reality TV. He’s considering I’m a Celebrity now that the Australian outback has been replaced by a castle in Wales. “It’s not like Big Brother where you’re destroyed. The worst that happens is they eat a few bugs and come out saying: ‘I had a great time in there.’”

If O’Sullivan ran care homes what a contrast it would be with his mad/bad boy image. So much of that is a media construct, he says. “If I’d been a bit savvy I’d have had a good agent. With people like [David] Beckham, you see what they want you to see of them … I think people now see me and think: ‘He’s not actually a bad fella, you know, he’s not as crazy as everybody thinks.’”

He turns this over in his head. Some people do still think he’s a bit off the wall, he adds – and he’s happy with that. “We all fit into some sort of box. And I appeal to the crazy gang, the nutcases.” He shouts out suddenly, like an excitable fan. “Yeaaaaaaaah! Go on Ronnie!”

 

Ronnie speaks to CGTN Sports ahead of his second round match against Ding.

Ronnie spoke to CGTN Sports ahead of his second round match at the Crucible.

O’Sullivan reveals emotional connection with Ding Junhui ahead of World Championship showdown

CGTN

 

RonnievDingUK2019jpg Ronnie O’Sullivan (L) shakes hands with Ding Junhui after the fourth round of the UK Championship at The Barbican, York, England, December 5, 2019.

“If Ding (Junhui) looks at his career, he’ll say he’s probably got a great balance – he’s been super successful on the table, but he hasn’t been a slave to the sport,” observed snooker great Ronnie O’Sullivan on Thursday ahead of their blockbuster tie in the second round of the World Championship.

The five-time champion, arguably the best player in the world, has a soft spot for the boyish Chinese star. The heartwarming scene of the English veteran and Ding wrapping in a tight embrace after a classic battle at the World Championship quarterfinal in 2017 still lingers in many fans’ memory. “I love him, he’s such a lovely guy,” said O’Sullivan, explaining that long hug.

It will be the third meeting between the pair at the championship, each having won one of their previous encounters. Facing a potentially explosive showdown, O’Sullivan is relishing the “tranquility” at the Crucible in northern England, amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

“My whole life has been about keeping it quiet and as simple as I can… I don’t go out to restaurants, takeaways are fantastic for me; it’s kind of how I’ve lived my life. Now I can go to snooker tournaments and still have that tranquility,” he told Eurosport.

RonnievDingRespect
Chinese star Ding Junhui sees world number 1 Ronnie O’Sullivan as his snooker idol. /VCG

“I’m a little bit in that bracket where I like to enjoy my life. There’s always a trade-off. I like to be healthy, live a good lifestyle and that means I can’t play in every tournament, otherwise my lifestyle wouldn’t be how I’d want it.

“Ding probably falls into that category as well. He gets really excited by the really big tournaments, but probably doesn’t want to be on the road 24/7. He drives his own car in many ways, and I respect that.”

Championship droughts weigh heavily on the 33-year-old Ding, a 14-time ranking event winner who is still searching for his first world title. During a brief interview with CGTN Sports Scene earlier this week, O’Sullivan predicted that Ding will eventually break his duck.

“I think Ding’s got a very good record and is a very, very reliable player. He’s delivered the goods for a good 15, 16, 17 years now,” he said.

“Obviously he would love to win the World Championship because as a player growing up and as a professional, you always get asked that question ‘Why haven’t you won the World Championships?’ That’s a horrible question to be asked when you are as good a player as Ding is.

“I had that for quite a while and when I won it for the first time it was a big relief. I think, for Ding, he’s more than capable of doing it, and I’m sure he will one day, I just hope it’s not this year, you know.”

DingAction
Ding Junhui aims to break his duck at the World Championship. /VCG

On Thursday, O’Sullivan said that time may be running short for Ding if he wants to taste the glory.

“I’m sure he’d love to get his hands on the world title, but each year you get older, it gets harder,” he noted. “Some players can play well into their 40s like me and John Higgins and Mark Williams, but we’re exceptions to the rule.”

Yet Ding remains upbeat about his prospects at this year’s showpiece event.

“Sometimes I need to learn the new things to control the game,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the second round, to improving my game again. I’m looking forward to winning.”

This is a short video excerpt that was shared on social media.

Ronnie played very well in the last 32, and this may be the best opportunity he’ll get to win another World title. He hates the hassle that comes with his status in the game, particularly in this tournament. The huge demands of the media, not being able to take a walk without being asked for autographs of selfies every three steps he takes, the constant weight of expectations … all that is a huge burden and one he’s been carrying since 28 years now. There is very little of it this year because of the pandemics.

But then, the same can be said about Ding who has been propelled to stardom at just 18 and has been carrying the hopes of his nation, China, ever since. Having been in the media room at the Crucible for six years, I have seen by myself how much pressure and expectations the Chinese media are putting on the shoulders of this man. It’s crazy really. They aren’t there this time.

Those two are friends, almost “brothers’. This goes back to the 2007 Masters Final, where Ronnie showed a lot of empathy in comforting his very distraught young opponent. He brought him to his own dressing room, made tea for them both, and also brought in one of his close friends who happens to be Chinese, in order to be able to communicate with Ding – who at the time didn’t speak English – and help him through this difficult moment. Many fans believe that the then very young Ding was upset because he was heavily beaten, but I have been told by reliable sources that there was more than that. He was also badly abused by members of the audience, including Chinese spectators that were probably angered because they had hefty bets on him to win.

I hope that this will be a good match, and one they can enjoy. I want Ronnie to win this, of course, but if he loses to Ding, I will then be 100% supporting Ding in his quest for a maiden World title.