Ronnie O'Sullivan is adamant that Judd Trump's bid to dominate snooker won't be decided on how he fares against this generation of green baize icons.
Trump reaffirmed his status as the sport's undisputed world number one with his third straight 9-7 win over O'Sullivan in an absorbing final of the Northern Ireland Open on Sunday having edged out the world champion by the same scoreline over the previous two years to lift the Alex Higgins trophy.
He starts as 3/1 favourite ahead of O'Sullivan at 7/2 to claim a second UK Championship having become the first man since seven-times world champion Stephen Hendry in the 1990s – who won a treble of UK titles between 1994 and 1996 – to triumph in the same ranking tournament for a third straight year.
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O'Sullivan begins his campaign for an eighth UK title in the first round against Ireland's Leo Fernandez at 7pm (GMT) over the best of 11 frames on Wednesday night with 2011 winner Trump meeting Paul Davison in his tournament opener on Thursday evening. The game's top ranked players are seeded to collide in the semi-finals.
Trump has carried off on an astonishing 11th ranking events and the Masters in the past two years having also started this season by winning the English Open with a 9-8 win over world number Neil Robertson in an epic final that produced four centuries and ten breaks over 50.
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“I think Judd's head and shoulders above everybody else out there," O'Sullivan told Eurosport. "He’s dominating. Maybe you could throw Neil Robertson into the mix with that one.
“(Three-times world champion) Mark Selby if he’s finding his top game. Outside of that, there isn’t anybody really able to compete with him."
The 31-year-old Bristolian has moved 14-13 clear of O'Sullivan on their career head-to-heads having recently commented that only the six-times world champion and four-times Crucible winner John Higgins can topple him at his very best. Higgins is 22-18 ahead of Trump in their head-to-head meetings.
"In my eyes, there are two people that could beat me at my best," Trump told Eurosport. "And that’s Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins. I’ve played them both, I’ve played John and played amazing before and still lost in deciders.
"I’ve played Ronnie and played well and lost, and against all the other players I normally win comfortably. Those two for me, at their best, are leagues above anyone else in the world."
O'Sullivan – who powered to an 18-8 win against Kyren Wilson in the delayed World Championship final in August – is the most prolific ranking event winner in history with 37, but Trump has moved up to sixth spot on 19 victories, three behind Mark Williams' career haul of 22.
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O'Sullivan feels Trump's biggest challenge will be extending his superiority beyond this generation as he looks to emulate snooker's greatest player of all time, who has lifted six world titles over three decades and is still at the summit of the sport 27 years after winning his first UK title at the age of 17 in 1993.
“Judd’s nearest rivals are going to be the people younger than him because they are going to be excited about playing him and they have no fear," commented O'Sullivan. "They want to be the next Judd Trump.
“That’s where his hardest battles will lie, not with people like me, Higgins, Williams, Robertson or Selby. The hardest matches are when they are looking up to you.
“Me and John have been around for a long time, but we’re certainly nowhere near the players we used to be when we were in our early 30s."