O'Sullivan v. Selby

William Skidelsky

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.


  • 7 May 2014 at 8:05am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    O'Sullivan is an exciting player, Selby bores his opponents to death. When Ronnie is in the mood his play is precise, brilliant, always three or four shots ahead. To watch him make that maximum break a few week sago was to be a witness to the highest level of professional skill - a genius at work. Selby's matches are ones to avoid. He is not quite as boring as Ebdon (who must have won prizes as the dullest player of all time) but his style is pedestrian. He also looks as if depression might be a problem. Hope Ronnie is OK after that accident!

  • 7 May 2014 at 10:41am
    WillSkidelsky says:
    I agree that O'Sullivan is exciting, but it's a bit unfair on Selby to characterise him as pedestrian. He's a brilliant tactician, and his performance in the final was remarkable because he so cunningly blunted O'Sullivan's genius. I don't think Ebdon could have done that. Sure, most of the time we'd all rather watch O'Sullivan, but there's a place for the Selbys too...

  • 7 May 2014 at 7:44pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    OK, I was a little hard on Selby, but let me put it this way. There are at least half a dozen players with the skills and nous of Selby; Ding, Higgins (bit off form recently but still a great player) Robertson of course, Hawkins has his moments, (well four) but the only player who comes anywhere near Sullivan in terms of flair and chuzpe is Judd Trump, but he seems to be inconsistent. So was Ronnie in his early days but Trump will be the one to watch in the future. I think that Sullivan's reputation is so great that it gives him a couple of frames advantage at the start but against a player like Selby he gets up tight after a few tough frames and loses the thread. It would be interesting to know how often he has been well ahead in a match but then seen it snatched from his grasp.

  • 8 May 2014 at 7:15pm
    jim bloggs says:
    Selby had his day of glory and fair play to him he,s worked hard for it, but the fact remains he will never ever be even half the player ronnie is. Ronnie is an absolute genious and the greatest of all time no doubt about it.. Many people were dying for selby to win this match and o sullivan be knocked off his high horse,, and for all the tacticians of the game it was a moral victory. For me personally though there was nothing special what selby did in the final he simply ground o sullivan down with bore tactics, there was no flair, and never once in the match did he take a risk.. His game plan was a boring cagey masterplan and it worked. He purposely tried to mess up every frame and turn it into a scrappy 20 minutes safety affair,,, he purposely refused to take on any kind of remotely risky shot. The fact remains though that in the end it worked because he won. The point is though there was nothing at all skillfull about his win, he just sucked the life out of the game. Personally i think ronnie is going have to be more patient against these bore tacticians like selby,,, he is going to have to learn to play them at there own game and refuse to let them get to him. At the start of the game i think he was being patient and didnt let it bother him but as the game went on selbys refusel to try and play any kind of decent snooker slowly got to him. The point i,m making is there was no brilliance to selbys win it he just slowly but surely bored his opponent to death. Credit where credit is due though selby has become world champion through hard work, and a never say die attitude. But the fact remains selby will be remembered as a bloke who won the world title once like peter ebdon while ronnie will be remembered as the legend who entertained millions with his mind blowing snooker. Fair play to selby but if snooker only had players like him then i wouldnt watch it,,,, thank god for ronnie