This year’s snooker World Championship final, which ended last night, was in its way a classic, despite there being no black-ball finish in the small hours. It was between the game’s most brilliant but volatile player, Ronnie O’Sullivan, and its most imperturbable strategist, Mark Selby, who put on a remarkable display of defensive ensnarement. Few people beforehand gave Selby much chance: when O’Sullivan’s head is together, as it has been recently, he is virtually unstoppable, particularly in a long match. (He had won all five of his previous world finals.) And at first, it seemed as if he would run away with this one, as Selby, looking jaded after a gruelling semi-final against Neil Robertson, struggled to find his game.
O’Sullivan went 3-0 up, then 8-3, then 10-5. Selby’s highest break in the first session was 38, and it wasn’t until the 12th frame that he made one of over 50. But O’Sullivan couldn’t quite shake him off, and eventually Selby’s ultra-defensive tactics started paying dividends. O’Sullivan is a fast, aggressive player who likes to win frames in a visit or two. Selby made this next to impossible. As the match wore on, he took fewer and fewer risks, drawing O’Sullivan into lengthy tactical exchanges; often, these would lead to strategic cul-de-sacs, forcing the players to ask for a re-rack. O’Sullivan likes to use his safety game aggressively, to draw mistakes from his opponent. Selby refused to give them to him.
The most dramatic session was the third, on Monday afternoon, in which frame after frame went to the wire. Selby, down 10-7 overnight, took the first four to lead for the first time. In the next frame both players seemed to unravel. Presented with relatively easy opportunities, neither could pot the clinching ball. Eventually, a mistake from Selby handed it to O’Sullivan. The next frame — the last of the session — went on for nearly an hour, and seemed poised to conclude with a brilliant rearguard action from O’Sullivan, who for once got the better of Selby in the tactical exchanges, and needed to pot only a simple pink into the middle pocket. But he struck the ball far harder than was necessary, as if seeking position on the black. The pink leapt from the pocket. Selby calmly sank both it and the black. For a player as good as O’Sullivan, it was a remarkable miss. ‘I think Ronnie’s head is scrambled,’ Stephen Hendry said.
In the final session O’Sullivan produced one outrageous clearance, but Selby’s strategic masterclass had tipped the balance. Now he was the one able to end frames quickly. He won 18-14. O’Sullivan gave an impressively poised speech, in which he praised his opponent and said he didn’t feel too bad, as he was in such a ‘good place’ generally. (He suffers from depression, which he manages these days with fanatical jogging and help from a sports psychologist.) O’Sullivan’s biggest problem, I’ve always thought, was a refusal to test his talent; he needed the excuse of not really trying. This time he had done his best, had failed, and was happy to admit it. You could say that made it a kind of victory for him too.