'Best of enemies' - Ronnie O'Sullivan and Mark Selby is best rivalry since Steve Davis and Alex Higgins
Ronnie O'Sullivan and Mark Selby are on a collision course to face each other in the final of the World Championship. The top two seeded players. The world number one vs the defending champion. They are two of the greatest players of all time and, while their styles are often at odds, between them they are snooker perfection
Watch - O'Sullivan referred to disciplinary committee after ‘lewd gesture’ at Crucible
This year, Ronnie O’Sullivan left the pre-tournament controversy to someone else.
O’Sullivan, himself a rare straight-talker in the increasingly sanitised world of professional sport, laughed offHossein Vafaei’s bizarre rant against him after the Iranian called for the six-times world champion’s retirement as a way of somehow saving snooker.
Ironically it felt like a classic O’Sullivan interview, starting with some reasonably argued points before descending into wildly over the top conclusions. If Vafaei thinks snooker would be better off without the game’s leading box office attraction he should try promoting an event without him and see how ticket sales go.
Over three decades O’Sullivan has dazzled, entranced, frustrated, annoyed, delighted, disappointed, astounded and ultimately fascinated snooker fans. Even his most begrudging critics would accept he has been an overwhelming force for good.
His 30th World Championship campaign began at the weekend with a 10-5 victory over Dave Gilbert but these are still very early days. To equal Stephen Hendry’s modern record of seven world titles he faces several challenges, including a potential meeting with a player not frightened of taking him on.
Mark Selby, winner of four of the last eight Crucible titles, passed his first-round test against Jamie Jones on Saturday. He has had off-table problems this season but at this venue, in this format, few players pose as much of a threat to O’Sullivan’s tilt at history as the ironman from Leicester.
In many ways O’Sullivan v Selby is the most compelling snooker rivalry since Steve Davis v Alex Higgins in the 1980s. That was also a meeting of polar opposites: Davis the model professional and favourite of family audiences; Higgins the firebrand rebel beloved by a passionate army of working class followers.
The difference, though, is that Davis had a formidable record over Higgins. O’Sullivan v Selby is a much more even contest, particularly in the big matches.
Selby has beaten O’Sullivan in all three so-called ‘triple crown’ finals (World, UK and Masters) and represents a different kind of test to ultra-attacking players like Neil Robertson and Judd Trump. At least with them, the match is usually played on terms which suit the Rocket’s own game, even though they are capable of outplaying him. Against Selby, pain is expected.
When O’Sullivan nicknamed him ‘the torturer’ it wasn’t meant as a compliment but Selby should take it as one. The criticism he gets for playing to his own strengths rather than O’Sullivan’s is laughable. He isn’t as good – because nobody is – in the all-out heavy scoring department so finds other ways to win. If you are playing the best break-builder in history, the way to beat him is to stop him break-building.
O’Sullivan may not see it that way. To him, there is a beauty to snooker which should not be sullied. But for many of us, the contrasts between these two giants of the sport make for compelling viewing whenever they clash cues.
The labels that stick to them do not tell the whole story. O’Sullivan is a savage scorer but, when he digs in, is also a brilliant tactical player with an instinctive snooker brain. Selby is known for his safety prowess but only five players in the game’s history have made more century breaks.
Mark Selby, Judd Trump, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Neil Robertson : quatre des immenses favoris pour le championnat du monde de snooker 2022.
Image credit: Eurosport
It’s all too easy to accept received wisdom about their respective personalities: Selby the slightly dull introvert; O’Sullivan brash and full of himself.
Human beings are more complex than this. Selby can be closed off in interviews, perhaps not enjoying the scrutiny, but in private is one of the most popular players on tour, making time for everyone and far more relaxed than when holding a microphone. To him, the circuit is like the extended family he never had as a boy.
O’Sullivan is a generous spirit, more reserved than many would imagine and not given to boastfulness even though he can play the showman. No player endures the glare of the spotlight as much as him and he has had to find ways to cope. Running has brought some much needed sanity to his life. He no longer makes tournaments entirely about the snooker, although he remains fiercely competitive in the arena.
These two exceptional champions are very different characters from markedly contrasting backgrounds. Selby had to rely on charity to play snooker growing up. O’Sullivan had a full-sized table in his house and practised against leading amateurs of the time, including the likes of Ken Doherty.
He enjoyed advantages but also suffered from personal turmoil which spilled out into the public arena at a young age. From the age of 17 he has been the centre of attention, with every misstep seized upon and easy judgements made by those who have never been in his position.
The media are still like bees round a honeypot with him, eager for quotes and reaction. He doesn’t always play ball but you wonder what there is left to say after 30 years of being asked the same questions.
The interest is understandable, however. O’Sullivan is possessed of natural charisma. He does not filter his opinions or seek acceptance. Selby is more guarded, more conventional. He does his talking on the table.
Their often awkward personal and professional dynamic was defined by the 2014 World Championship final.ç
O’Sullivan had been going for a third title in succession and sixth in total. He led Selby 10-5 on the first day with two frames to play. Selby was showing signs of exhaustion following his epic 17-15 semi-final defeat of Robertson the previous night and was there for the taking.
But he did what he does: doggedly hanging on to win the last two frames of the night. After a good sleep, he returned to the Crucible and took control, getting under O’Sullivan’s skin with some hard match-play to claw his way into the lead.
At 17-14, with the pressure on to get the match won, Selby made a typically gutsy clearance to become world champion for the first time. He quickly won two more titles while O’Sullivan began to flounder in Sheffield. Following the nature of the Selby defeat he started to talk about the championship as a ‘slog’ which seemed like an unclimbable mountain, even though he had successfully climbed it five times.
He had never lost in a world final before and it hit him hard. He had been the best player for 16 days but lost on the 17th. All that effort felt like it was for nothing.
Until 2020, O’Sullivan had never even been back in the one-table set up but he made it through to the semi-finals in the strange behind closed doors summer championship to face Selby once again.
This time it was Selby who made the early running, but at 13-9 he failed to press on, losing the last two frames of the third session. He still led 16-14 but, thanks to some unconventional shot selections, O’Sullivan turned it round to come through in a decider.
You could sense his elation, not just at reaching the final but in banishing the ghosts of 2014. He comfortably beat Kyren Wilson 18-8 to secure a sixth world title. Selby responded to this setback by winning his fourth world crown last year.
Now, they are on collision course again, the top two seeds this year. Selby had not played for two months before his opening day match with Jones, having taken time out due to his mental health issues, but made three centuries in winning 10-7.
O’Sullivan also compiled three centuries and was strong in all areas of his game in dispatching Gilbert.
A Selby-O’Sullivan final two weeks from now would provide a fascinating climax to the championship, even if history suggests it is unlikely. Only once at the Crucible have the top two seeds met in the title match – back in 1987 when defending champion Joe Johnson faced world no.1 Steve Davis.
Yet this is a rivalry with several chapters still to be written. O’Sullivan and Selby are the best of enemies, two sides of the same snooker coin. If you combined their characters into a single player, they would never lose.
But at least one of them must before the champion is crowned on May 2nd.
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