The ancient sport of snooker began a new decade in a state of opulence before ending the year under its own version of Marshall law. After the pomp and majesty of the Masters in old London town, the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes became the slightly surreal home of potting during the pandemic as snooker found enough change to keep the table lights on amid the backdrop of face muzzles and lockdown locks that saw Judd Trump sport a stylish Terry Griffiths tribute barnet and Ronnie O’Sullivan wallow in a sultry Willie Thorne moustache.
The great WT’s tragic death aged only 66 in June put much of a grim year into perspective as the most imposing of all cue sports managed to pot its way out of the darkness that saw it snookered for three months amid professional sport’s wider coronavirus conundrum behind closed doors.
Covid-19 tests became as much of a challenge for cueists as space took on a greater meaning than merely putting distance between white ball and object ball with a few telling safety shots.
Ronnie O'Sullivan sports a moustache in Milton Keynes.
Image credit: Eurosport
In between times, an engrossing generation game played out in which a conveyer belt of enduring and engaging class reminded us that the green baize remains a place for genuine, hardened gunhands when money and prestige is on offer, with or without an audience.
Nobody below the age of 30 prospers greatly these days without first doing the hard yards.
The Million Dollar Quartet – Rise of snooker's big four
Undisputed world number one Trump, Neil Robertson, O’Sullivan and Mark Selby end the year as snooker’s big four, a quintet of trophy-lifting safe crackers clasping more silver than Long John Parrott. Expect more of the same from the sport’s million dollar quartet in 2021 having amassed over £4.6m at the top of the world rankings.
While prime-time Trump became the most consistent tournament winner the sport has witnessed since seven-times world champion Stephen Hendry in the 1990s, the venerable O’Sullivan sealed his status as the game’s greatest player of all time by clinching a sixth world title 19 years after his first success at the Crucible Theatre at the age of 25 – a full six years after his previous run to the final.
VIP booths, Laurent Perrier champagne and Chesterfield sofas were all the rage at the 46th Masters in Alexandra Palace in January at a cost of £695 per day among over 2,000 salivating fans attending the sport’s biggest invitational event involving the top-16 professionals, but there is no catering for every taste as a random character carrying a whoopee cushion tried to disrupt the final between the 2015 world champion Stuart Bingham and Ali ‘The Captain’ Carter. Amid the frazzled happenings at base camp in MK, O’Sullivan let slip a more notable ill wind later in the year.
'Somebody is making an awful noise!' - Fart machine disrupts Masters final
Masterful Bingham defies critics
World number 17 Carter had navigated his route to the Masters final after his Essex rival O'Sullivan's decision to withdraw from the event due to unhappiness over media commitments a year earlier, but could not quite take the final step as Bingham recovered from trailing 7-5 to complete a 10-8 win. Aged 43 years and 243 days, the ‘Ball-run’ from Basildon became the oldest winner of the tournament since six-times world champion Ray Reardon triumphed a few days younger in 1976.
Bingham ran in one of the nine maximum 147 breaks of 2020 increasing the total to 164 – 130 of which have been constructed since the year 2000. But oddly enough, he curiously finished his win over the two-times world finalist Carter with a knock of 109, his solitary century of the event.
Highlights: Bingham beats Carter to take Masters title
“The people in the game know my World Championship win was not a fluke," said Bingham, who was forced to miss the 2018 Masters after serving an unfortunate six-month suspension for breaking betting rules.
You will always have haters, even with winning this.
"People will say I got lucky or I won because Ronnie was not playing. No matter how much you explain to them, or talk to them about what did not happen with the betting, they don't believe you – they will still call me a cheat."
Defending Masters champion Trump had been turned over 6-3 by Shaun Murphy – winner of the Welsh Open a month later with a 9-1 filleting of October’s Championship League victor Kyren Wilson – on the opening day of the event despite making three centuries in five frames, but it was a minor blip in a year of living splendidly at the summit of his calling in life.
Trump's magnetic pull – a season like no other
Trump set a new record for ranking event victories with glory at the German Masters, the Players Championship and Gibraltar Open increasing his haul to six for the 2019/20 season having carried off the International Championship, the World Open and Northern Ireland Open in the first half of a campaign dripping with ornaments, audacious shots and maturity of strategy and self-awareness.
Judd Trump channels inner Alex Higgins with miraculous shot
Before lockdown came into effect immediately after his victory in Gibraltar, the last trip out of Blighty, Bristol's finest cue cream stood on 97 centuries and looked certain to overhaul Robertson’s century of centuries record of 103 set back in the 2013/14 campaign, but agonisingly came up one short.
A relatively modest five centuries from the summer’s Championship League event, Tour Championship and World Championship saw the 'Ace in the Pack' fold on 102 for the season as his elongated reign as 2019 world champion ended on a slightly sedate note at the Crucible with a 13-9 quarter-final defeat to Wilson in August. He is hardly a busted flush.
Trump is again out in front this season with 49 centuries catapulting him eight clear of Robertson’s 41 in a startling exhibition of heavy scoring that leaves a snooker cue arms race brimming with delightful possibilities ahead.
O'Sullivan regains world crown with Rocket rope-a-dope
For O’Sullivan, the sport’s delayed blue-chip event at the 44th staging of the World Championship in Sheffield became a home from home without the distraction of fans as the pandemic restricted the crowd to just the opening and final days inside the 980-seat Crucible.
The tournament witnessed the four-times world champion John Higgins run in a first Crucible maximum break since Hendry in 2012 – only the seventh man in history to achieve the feat 37 years after Cliff Thorburn's historic first – but it was another old stager who enjoyed the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of no crowd.
Watch John Higgins clinch 'fantastic' 147 to make history at World Snooker Championship
O’Sullivan came into his semi-final with Selby arguably as second favourite despite rousing wins over Thepchaiya Un-Nooh (10-1), Ding Junhui (13-10) and Mark Williams (13-10) on his sojourn to face the only player to defeat him in the finals of the world, Masters and UK Championship.
The final three frames he played against the man he once dubbed ‘The Torturer’ to recover from 16-14 behind to run out a 17-16 winner with thrilling breaks of 138, 71 and 64 was the stuff of legend. Amid a blizzard of fearsome potting, Selby was left bemoaning his inability to put O’Sullivan away before suffering Rocket rope-a-dope in a style similar to George Foreman against Muhammad Ali in 1974.
This was more Grumble in the Jungle with Selby unhappy about O’Sullivan’s tactics in escaping from snookers by walloping the white without much thought as he ended three days of dominance defeated and dumbfounded by the eccentric method in the madness.
O'Sullivan edges Selby in Crucible thriller
“I just felt like it was obviously a bit disrespectful to me and the game,” said Selby.
Obviously if you are playing anybody else, there’s not many players who will get down and just hit them 100 miles per hour when you put them in a snooker.
Selby had himself clawed his way back from trailing O’Sullivan 10-5 in the 2014 final on his way to an 18-14 win that set the scene for further victories in 2016 and 2017, but saw his spirit reduced to rubble by an O’Sullivan ambush from the brink of elimination.
It was gladiatorial stuff from O’Sullivan as the final before the final fell his way. Kyren Wilson had edged one of the most remarkable frames in Crucible folklore in his 17-16 win over Anthony McGill – the final frame lasted 61 minutes and 39 seconds and saw Wilson triumph 103-83 – but was no match for an expectant O’Sullivan in the final as the Essex man rampaged away with eight of the last nine frames in an 18-8 Sunday stroll having resumed 10-7 clear on Saturday evening.
Despite suggesting he lacked a consistency of cue action, his natural ability and break-building from close range was more than enough to carry the day amid 12 tournament centuries. Heavy is the head, but not for Rocket Ronnie when the mood takes him.
Best of 2020: Watch moment Ronnie O'Sullivan clinches sixth World Snooker Championship title
He earned his first nomination for the Sports Personality of the Year award in December which was both a delight and overdue when you consider his contribution to his vocation has spanned 29 rollicking years of a record 1068 century breaks, 15 maximums, the fastest 147 of all time in five minutes and eight seconds, 37 ranking event wins and 20 Triple Crown titles, including half a dozen world victories over three decades.
At the age of 45, there is no sign of decay or delusion at a time in life when Steve Davis and Hendry were long gone as tournament winners, never mind contending at full throttle as a world champion.
“By playing snooker, I feel like I’m the king of my castle,” said O’Sullivan in an interview with Eurosport. "That’s the drug really, it’s not the money, it’s not the prestige, it’s just that feeling that I’ve got the best **** out of everybody else.”
Best of 2020: O'Sullivan grins after mid-match fart
Robertson conquers UK in Black Ball final pastiche
Australia’s greatest player Robertson was never far from the furnace. The Melburnian, who O’Sullivan feels “has got the best cue action there has ever been”, won the European Masters with a 9-0 dismantling of poor Zhou Yeulong - the first whitewash since Davis’ 10-0 drubbing of Dean Reynolds in the 1989 Grand Prix final - and then claimed a 10-8 win over Graeme Dott in the World Grand Prix final at the outset of the year. But the 2010 world champion was made to wait for his defining moment having lost to Trump in the finals of the German Masters (9-6) and English Open (9-8) and a rejuvenated Mark Allen (10-6) in the Champion of Champions final without doing much wrong.
His 10-9 victory over Trump in the UK Championship final in early December was something to behold.
Some 35 years after the World Championship final between Dennis Taylor and Davis – famously dubbed the Black Ball final – concluded at 12.23am on Monday 29 April 1985 with Taylor sinking the final black before a record terrestrial TV audience on BBC2 of 18.5 million in an 18-17 triumph, the UK final finished at 12.55am on Monday 7 December 2020 with Robertson sinking the final pink to claim his third UK trophy to add to his victories in 2013 and 2015.
Trump and Robertson locked cues for over seven hours and 20 minutes in clawing their way to a 19-frame conclusion in the 44th staging of the final.
Trump required only two balls for victory, but somehow missed a routine pink with the black there for the potting as Robertson pounced to hole the penultimate ball after a fierce 66-minute joust.
“There was more drama in that last frame than there was in the Dennis Taylor v Steve Davis final,” said Robertson. “We were both coming out of snookers, fluking snookers back. We were both thinking ‘I’ve won, I’ve lost, I’ve won, I’ve lost.’ I’ve never been involved in a match that went that long.”
'He's missed it!' - Watch the stunning conclusion to epic final
Selby and O'Sullivan – the best of enemies
Selby is no stranger to a lengthy joust over his ongoing 20-year career as he edged out Martin Gould 9-8 to lift the European Masters title in a high-quality duel before maintaining his focus in a tempestuous 9-3 win over O’Sullivan in the Scottish Open final that was not exactly played in the Corinthian spirit.
Both players were embroiled in gamesmanship, accusing each other of deliberately distracting the other man and O’Sullivan was stopped from playing on by referee Leo Scullion in the third frame trailing 2-1 and 82-25 with only the black left on the table.
'Ridiculous' - Watch bizarre scenes over black between O'Sullivan and Selby
“I'm too long in the tooth for his antics and what he tries to do sometimes,” commented Selby after Allen had accused O’Sullivan of similar conduct during their fiery tête-à-tête at the Champion of Champions.
Selby ends the year having matched Hendry’s record of 11 straight wins in ranking event finals with the chance to go beyond that in the new year. For the Jester, there is time for some mirth.
Clutching his six-year old daughter Sofia, he discussed his success with Eurosport pundit Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White and joked: "She said to me earlier, ‘Jimmy gave me ten pounds. I don’t know whether to spend it or frame it."
The likeable Gould made one of the most courageous recoveries of the year as he considered quitting the sport during lockdown due to his battle with the black dog of depression.
He came through three qualifying rounds to reach the World Championship and hit four centuries and five 50 plus breaks in a 10-3 win over Stephen Maguire.
A 13-9 defeat to Wilson in the last 16 could not deflate the talented Motorhead aficionado, who Trump later described “the most attacking player there is in snooker” when he is motoring.
Maguire's tour de force – Maverick in the money
Maguire – the 2004 UK winner dubbed 'The Maverick' – ended the year lamenting being stuck in the debatable environs of Milton Keynes, but Buckinghamshire wasn’t all bad for the Scotsman as he careered to a 10-6 victory over Allen at the delayed Tour Championship in July that saw him trouser a whopping £260,000 in winnings from the Coral Series.
Maguire was only in the event involving the top eight on the one-year ranking list after Ding Junhui opted not to travel from China to participate in the penultimate tournament before the delayed World Championship broke off in Sheffield on 31 July.
He became the first man to hit six centuries in a best-of-19 frame match in a 9-5 win over Robertson in the first round before flooring Trump 9-6 in the semi-finals.
Mark Allen and Stephen Maguire.
Image credit: Eurosport
“It’s scary, it has definitely not sunk in yet,” said Maguire. “The amount of money this tournament has paid is incredible. It is a hell of a lot of money for five days of work.”
Whirlwind blows hot in Sheffield summer
The 'Wonderful Whirlwind of old London town’ produced an epic victory at the World Seniors Championship in August.
At the sprightly age of 58, White – the six-times World Championship finalist – trailed 4-0 to the 1997 world champion Ken Doherty but unearthed some magical matchplay snooker from yesteryear to secure a 5-4 victory at a Crucible venue that has haunted and taunted him.
Can Jimmy White recreate Judd Trump's 'genius' shot?
His 4-2 win over Hendry, who defeated him in four of those finals in the 1990s including that agonising 18-17 defeat in 1994, in the semi-finals saw him compile a 130 knock.
"‘I still love practising and working on my technique. I’m reborn again with it because I had ten years when I was struggling. Now I’m back enjoying it and this is a great win for me."
White's fellow Londoner Alfie Burden was involved in one of those moments that tend to transcend the sport he plays after the horrific murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police in May.
Responding to what he described as "vile" racism, Burden – who retired from the professional tour after 26 years in September – dropped to one knee for a few seconds before a Championship League contest with Ryan Day on 3 June at the Marshall Arena.
Trump ends year with grand finale
Snooker and horse racing were the first sports to return to the starting grid after lockdown in June, but there is no sign of normality on the immediate horizon with World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn forced to abandon plans to house a party at the Masters next month. No Chesterfield sofas this time.
"It is like this whole thing is taking great pleasure in kicking me in the nuts. Every time I spend a load of money, there is no payback," he said.
Keeping the show on the road was the real success story for Hearn's year in such a troubled time for the wider world.
Players continued to earn and Trump continued to win. Even when he wasn't winning, he was always reaching the latter stages which tells you enough about his dedication in a cut-throat sport seemingly impossible to dominate.
He concluded with a 10-7 win over his close friend Jack Lisowski in the World Grand Prix final for an unheralded sixth ranking victory of 2020.
Watch Judd Trump's stunning 147 maximum break in full
"I was kind of happy to just win a couple of events and I've blown that out of the water," opined Trump. "It's probably the best start I've ever made to a season and there's not really much else I can improve on.”
It threw up a fitting final summation of the year's narrative: while the world belongs to O’Sullivan, the snooker world forms part of Trump’s universal supremacy. In a year like no other, Trump has enjoyed a magnetic pull. He has been truly out of this world.