Masters Snooker Final: Clash of styles has ingredients of a classic
Ronnie O'Sullivan made the game look easy as he coasted past Stephen Maguire. But Mark Selby is just the sort to spoil a party and can make today's final a scrappier affair than the Rocket would like, says Ian Hendon.
After Ronnie O'Sullivan lost 9-8 to Mark Selby in last season's Welsh Open final he openly questioned whether the Leicester man was as talented as others had suggested.
In fairness, this was minutes after he had seen his 8-5 lead overturned. Sportsmen say all sorts of things in the heat of the moment and I think O'Sullivan's considered view would be markedly different now. Even so, O'Sullivan v Selby is an intriguing clash of styles and personalities and has the potential to provide the Wembley Masters with a classic final.
O'Sullivan won their last meeting 7-2 in the Premier League final last month and boasts a 4-2 lead overall. He coasted to victory over Stephen Maguire last night, just as he had done over Ali Carter in the quarter-finals. He made the game look ridiculously easy and, unless you backed the other guys, was a joy to watch. But he can be beaten and Selby is just the sort to spoil the party. And, put bluntly, he can employ spoiling tactics if he so desires by dictating the pace and making it a scrappier affair than O'Sullivan would like.
Every player in the game's history has cracked up under pressure at some point. O'Sullivan did so against Graeme Dott in the World Championship semi-finals in 2006. If Selby is to beat him then he has to put him under the cosh from the off, which Carter and Maguire failed to do. Remember, O'Sullivan could have lost 6-4 in the first round to Joe Perry but Perry's missed pink threw the world champion a lifeline and he has looked unstoppable since. His two centuries against Maguire means he has passed Stephen Hendry's record of 41 centuries in the Masters - and Hendry has played in the game's leading invitation event five times more than O'Sullivan.
But Selby won't care about any of this. He won't fear O'Sullivan. Indeed, he'll relish it because, as I explained yesterday, he loves snooker so much that he would regard a live TV date with the game's top dog as something to look forward to rather than shrink from.
The way I see it, Selby has a choice: he either takes O'Sullivan on at his own game of long potting and break building or he attempts to slow proceedings up and frustrate him. The latter would make for less of a spectacle but provide his best chance of retaining the title, even though he himself is no slouch in the break making department. O'Sullivan has fired in 27 centuries this season while Selby has contributed 24 but the more open the game, the more it favours the Rocket.
Another factor could be the crowd. You'd think that most of the 2,500 or so people inside Wembley Arena would cheer for Essex boy O'Sullivan but I remember when he played Paul Hunter in the 2004 final and, such was Hunter's infectious charm, that the support was more even than anticipated. Selby is a likeable sort who often cracks a gag or two and generally gets the crowd on his side, so O'Sullivan will have to accept that a fair proportion of the audience is cheering the other guy.
Just in case there was any lingering doubt from Ronnie or anyone else, let me assure you that Selby is talented. His level-headedness and mix of flair and defensive nous make him very tough to beat. That's not to say O'Sullivan shouldn't start favourite but his big test is going to come when he's not having things all his own way, and Selby is more than capable of wrecking what too many people already seem to believe will be a mere victory lap.
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