Today sees one of the busiest days of the World Championship, as all four quarter-finals are played to a conclusion here in Sheffield. Already through to the last four is Mark Selby, while Ronnie O’Sullivan, Barry Hawkins and Judd Trump are currently favourites to join him…
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It has been a busy few days at the Crucible Theatre as this season’s World Championship reaches its business end and today sees the final action of the two-table phase in 2014.
Arriving just after the start of play, I was at the venue just in time to see Alan McManus close to 12-5 against Mark Selby with a break of 69, but of course the damage had already been done and it took just one further frame for Selby to progress.
Soon into the media room was McManus, who despite reaching his first quarter-final here in nine years, was openly disappointed about his performance over the past couple of days:
“I was just very poor, not quite from the outset but certainly last night, I had plenty of chances and just didn’t take them and that’s the disappointing thing really, I didn’t compete. When you play one of the very top players you have got to score and I just didn’t score, so you are not going to get the job done doing that.
“He came on strong last night, he played better, especially the last few frames last night, he just pulled away and the match was then virtually done. That’s the disappointing thing, that I didn’t pressurise him. You have got to put pressure on the top players, let them know that you are there and let them know that you are going to compete and score and I just wasn’t doing that. It’s unforgivable really and that’s the disappointing thing.
“It is difficult, there is no getting away from it, you go to bed last night and you kinda know that you are 99.9% going home today and that is difficult but I still tried, that’s all you can do, I’m just very disappointed to go out so tamely. It’s difficult to really add much to that, I didn’t feel that great yesterday for whatever reason I don’t know, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes.
“There are a couple of positives that you have always got to look back on, I will do I’m sure in a few days. It’s obviously very raw and when you lose here you are always absolutely gutted, there is no getting away from that and I feel pretty low about my performance more than anything. Results-wise it doesn’t mean that much to me but I want to perform well out there and I’m disappointed not to.”
As Alan said, in a few days he will hopefully be able to see the positives from what has undoubtedly been a strong couple of weeks for him, as he rolled back the years to reach his first Crucible quarter-final in nine years.
Having played six matches at the World Championship including three qualification matches, nobody will have played more in this year’s tournament and whether that played a part in his performance only he will know. Indeed having beaten three former world champions on his way to the quarter-finals, he could hardly have had a tough route on paper.
His reward though is a return to the world’s top 32 for the first time since the 2006/7 season, well-earned on the back of his performances during the last couple of seasons.
Through to the semi-finals for the first time since 2010 though is Selby, who was understandably pleased with how the match unfolded:
“I wouldn’t say it was straight forward, I’d say we both played below-par in the first session and I was happy to get out 4-3 in front.
“Second session I thought I played really well, more times than not I took my chances when I got them which I know I needed to do and if I did that I’d come through the match.
“But obviously Alan’s a great player, his tactical game is as good as anyone’s in the world. It was tough because I found myself getting involved in the tactical side, I don’t mind that side of the game but if I can play an open game I can prefer that.
“If the balls go scrappy I’ll play the balls scrappy, but I felt in the session Alan was controlling it and I was playing into his hands. Second session, I tried to play more attacking safety and open the balls up because I knew that I felt good and If I got a chance I could score.”
“I don’t think it’s ever tough getting up for a match in the Crucible with it being the World Championships but it is a strange feeling going out there knowing you need one frame. You know more times than not you’re going to get over the line, it’s just a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’.
“You just have to be patient, Alan came out first frame and made a break. I knew because his back was against the wall he was just going to let his arm go and is more than capable of making four one-visits and all of a sudden it’s 12-8.
“He’s still a great player, this season has probably been of his best for many years and he’s shown what a class act he still is. It’s nice to see people like Alan who is one of the gentlemen of the sport, to still be playing some good snooker and getting back to where he thinks he should belong.
“It’s been a long time, I think it’s been four years since I last got to the semi-final so it’ll be nice looking forward to it. I don’t play until (Thursday) evening against the winner of Judd (Trump) or Neil (Robertson) so I’ve got a little bit of a break, but it’s a matter of getting some rest, coming back fresh and enjoying it more than anything else.
“There’s still a long way to go, I feel like I’m only halfway through the tournament with a first to 17 and a first to 18, there are still a lot of top-class players left, i.e. Judd or Neil in the next round, and then I will potentially play Ronnie or Barry. It doesn’t get any easier but if I go out there and relax I know I’ve got every chance.
“I feel like I’m gradually getting better as the tournament goes on and on, which is always a good sign as you don’t want to peak at the beginning and fade away. Fingers crossed I’ll carry on working hard on the practice table, and who knows.”
It is strange to think of Selby being through to the one-table set-up for the first time in four years, indeed he has come into the tournament this year perhaps a little under the radar, which I have no doubt will suit him, particularly given the level of attention being placed on a number of his competitors.
Next up for him will be either Judd Trump or Neil Robertson, who resume at 2:30pm with Robertson now not only chasing that elusive 100th century break of the season, but also an opponent four frames ahead after a very poor session yesterday for the Australian.
If Neil can get back to 9-7 down heading into this evening’s session then I would give him every chance of completing a comeback this evening, but any worse than 10-6 and surely Trump will be joining Selby in the semi-finals.
One man who looks considerably more certain to progress to the last four is Ronnie O’Sullivan, who has extended his 6-2 overnight lead to 11-3, Murphy having had gilt-edged chances to take the last two. Having started so strongly yesterday before losing that pivotal third frame, Shaun must be terribly disappointed with how he has played since and it now appears very likely that this could be over with a session to spare…
13:13: And little more than half an hour later, it was as Ronnie, despite some technical difficulties out in the arena with the scoreboard on table one, completed an emphatic 13-3 win to book his place in an 11th career semi-final, one behind Stephen Hendry who made 12.
As Murphy explained after the match, he was nowhere near clinical enough to trouble O’Sullivan during the match and he was quick to praise his illustrious opponent:
“That’s how tough it is against O’Sullivan. We are blessed and lucky to be in the era of Ronnie I think, we are all very privileged to be here witnessing someone who is that good at something. Playing him is very, very difficult. You feel as if you are taking part in something where you are playing on his table, it’s very difficult and I didn’t cope with it very well.
“I started really well, it’s just a shame it wasn’t the best of three! Two and a half frames in I was feeling very good, playing really well, but momentum can change in an instant and a missed red and a couple of missed pots in the first session cost me. Today, I never really got any momentum at all, I had a couple of chances to steal a few frames, didn’t take them and they are magnified against someone of his class.
“Every little sliver of a chance you get, you have got to take, otherwise you lose and in this match I have made at least 13, maybe 20 fatal errors and it has cost me. Against another player on another day I might still be fighting in there playing but against O’Sullivan, at this level, you are going home.
“It’s a great opportunity to watch and see where we have all got to improve because he is the benchmark. I’ve worked very hard on my game and I have got a list as long as my arm on things that I have got to go home and carry on working on.
“I would have liked to have seen myself nick a few more frames and make more of a fight of it, because the match although it was 13-3, was probably a little bit nearer than that, I did have my chances. If I could have made more of a fight of it early on, who knows what could have happened. As I say, that is the pressure of playing O’Sullivan, that’s what he does to people.”
As for Ronnie, he was soon in to join us and like Mark Selby, will no doubt be satisfied to have an evening off ahead of the start of the semi-finals tomorrow.
“I got off to a dodgy start and he should have gone 3-0 up really, I got a bit lucky really to stay level early in the match and then I kept getting left in quite easily really, I didn’t have to fight for my chances and was just scoring off Shaun’s errors really.
“I had to change my tip after yesterday so that was a new tip I had on today so you just want to get comfortable with that first really. That’s one of the bugbears of being a snooker player really, when your tip is not right, no matter how well you are playing, you are not 100% confident in playing all of the shots you want to play, but I was able to play most of them out there today.
“It looks like I am going to be playing Barry, because he has got a huge lead against Dominic [Dale], even before the tournament started I thought Barry was definitely one of the danger men in this event, especially the way he played against me in last year’s final, he probably played some of the best snooker that anybody has played against me, up there with Higgins and Hendry. He just seemed relentless, his potting and break-building and his safety, he was good in all areas.”
Following the morning session, it was notable that on social media networks and at the venue, there were comments from people suggesting that despite the strong quarter-final line-up, the last two days had not lived up to expectations, given the one-sided nature of all four matches.
It was hard to disagree at the time, although the feeling persisted that although 6-2 down, Neil Robertson was not yet out of his match with Judd Trump, which would be played to a conclusion during the following two sessions.
Before that, a mention for Poland’s Monika Sułkowska, who is here in the media room this week, I believe working for a radio station in Poland. While waiting for Ronnie to come in for his press conference, I asked her if she had been in Gdynia during the season’s Polish European Tour event, during which she informed me that she was in fact the referee during Shaun Murphy’s 147 break against Jamie Jones!
Aware that there were a few celebrities in attendance today, I headed back out into the arena keen to secure a seat for the second session of the match between Trump and Robertson, while Barry Hawkins was also set to resume against Dominic Dale, needing just two frames for victory at 11-5.
I was fortunate enough to be able to meet Jon McClure and his father-in-law, as well as Matt Lewis of the Harry Potter films, both visiting the Crucible for the day and clearly enjoying the action, though as I got them earpieces from Michaela Tabb I suffered a reprimand from the Scot for my continued failure to bring her the chocolates promised long ago.
Back on the baize, the first frame of the session on table two was to set the tone for the afternoon, becoming a real battle that was eventually won by Robertson to keep himself in the match at 6-3. I had never seen so many kicks in a single frame of professional snooker before and therefore it was no great surprise to see Neil ask Judd and referee Terry Camilleri if the set of balls could be changed immediately, which they were as Martin Clark brought out a spare set.
As the session progressed, by the mid-session interval Neil had achieved what surely must have been his aim at the start of the day by winning three of the first four frames to close to 7-5, before adding the next to reduce the gap to just one frame. Credit to Judd though, who although not at his very best either, stood up well to claim the last two of the session, before the players were pulled off early with their evening session less than 90 minutes away, with the scoreline poised at 9-6 Trump.
By this point, you could have been forgiven for believing that the action over on table one would have long since concluded, but in fact there were unbelievable scenes in the match between Hawkins and Dale, as Dominic claimed the first seven frames of the day to take a shock 12-11 lead against last season’s runner-up. Indeed, both Robertson and Trump had their eyes glued to the monitors in the arena above the adjacent table when they were not on a break.
Having left the arena briefly following the conclusion of play on table two, as Hawkins hit back to force a deciding frame, I headed back into the arena for what would surely be a thrilling conclusion. Though many deciders can be nerve-jangling, tensioned-filled affairs, all credit must go to Barry, who finished it off with a gutsy break of 65, which judging by his reaction of punching both the air and the table as he sunk a match-clinching pink, meant everything to him.
As he was warmly congratulated by a smiling Dale and both players left the arena, I shared an exchange with referee Brendan Moore, with whom there is something of an in-joke because of the amount of deciding frames that he seems to find himself refereeing (18-17 for the final, you heard it here first), before heading over to the media room to hear both players give their reaction.
With just 55 minutes to go until the start of the evening session, the plan was to head over to Pizza Express for food with fellow blogger @snookeroland, but not before being caught in a rainstorm of Biblical proportions in Sheffield, which proved particularly troublesome when coming across the locked doors to the Winter Gardens.
Eventually I did arrive, but with the quick turnaround to the evening session, we were left watching the opening frames of the session on an iphone, hoping that we would not miss the historic ‘ton of tons’ from Robertson as he began the session with a break of 52. While hurriedly eating before heading back to the Crucible, we discussed the importance of the feat and I admitted that I did not think that reaching 100 century breaks would be such a distraction for Robertson, as although he clearly wanted it, I did not think that it was so much great an achievement than the 99 that he was currently stuck on. As we would later find out however, I could not have been much more wrong on that count.
As the frames ticked by, the match followed a similar pattern, Robertson taking the first two, a terrific plant while escaping from a snooker on the final two reds, as well as an even better positional shot from brown to blue seeing him close to 9-8, before Judd responded by taking the next two frames to lead 11-8 at the mid-session interval.
At this stage I was beginning to think that despite the pressure coming from Robertson, Trump was responding well and that the damage might have been done for the Australian in the opening session of the match. Neil though had clearly not given up and with breaks of 44 and 70 was again able to close to within just one frame, as Judd was visibly starting to wobble.
What came next however was to be one of the great Crucible moments, as Robertson set about drawing level in the match for the first time since the second frame. With thoughts initially on the frame, as he played a split perfectly on the final five or six reds, it suddenly dawned on everyone that this was now a terrific chance for Robertson to finally make his 100th century break of the season and I looked up at @snookeroland in the crowd and we both smiled knowingly, that this would be the frame.
While I knew that Neil would be pleased to reach the milestone, nothing had prepared me for his jubilant reaction, at a time when lets not forget, there was still a match to be won as he drew level at 11-11. He celebrated though as if he had won the title and the crowd loved it. As the break approached 100 the likes of Brendan Moore and MC Rob Walker had snuck into the arena to witness history being made and felt like a very special moment to have been there to witness first-hand.
As the session continued, albeit with almost continued distractions from someone in the crowd who seemingly could not breathe without coughing, as well as someone who felt the need to shout ‘come on Ronnie’ as Robertson lined up a crucial shot, the outcome now looked to be inevitable. For a brief moment it looked as though Judd might clear to force a decider, but a missed black, again not helped by a distraction from the crowd, would ultimately prove to be his last shot as Robertson completed a comeback.
Heading out of the arena and following Judd into the press conference, I arrived to find him come under fairly intense questioning concerning Robertson’s celebration when he made the century and also why he had not offered a handshake at the time:
“I felt in control of it to be honest, he played some good stuff towards the end but I always felt like I was going to get another chance. There were a few distractions for both players towards the end which was a bit unfair. I’ve got off the black and ended up missing it but he had that a few times as well, he missed a couple, the commentators on one shot and the crowd started laughing and he missed that. It was disappointing really because it was a good game apart from that.
“You are never going to get an easy game here, especially at the quarter-finals stage, Neil wasn’t going to give in, he was going to stick to his gameplan. I knew it was going to be 13-10, 13-11, it was going to be close, just a little bit disappointed from 11-8 I didn’t really get any chances. I think at 12-10 I had two balls that rattled and just stayed over the pocket, that summed it up really, I knew then I didn’t think it was going to be my day.
“Not really, I just had to get out of the arena as quick as possible, it was a tremendous achievement for him but I didn’t want to be in there any longer, I just had to get out and try and concentrate on winning the match but he played a good next frame and in the last he twitched a little bit, but I twitched as well on the black. There is a lot of pressure out there and he took the green and brown very well because they weren’t easy.
“if it was a maximum I would have gone over and shaken his hand but for me it’s a brilliant achievement but you can look at it how you want, 100 centuries doesn’t mean anything to me, he’s made it, it’s a brilliant achievement, the first in history but for me I just wanted to get on and win the game, I congratulated him at the end of the match and wished him luck so that’s all I could do.
“In my eyes it’s not [as big an achievement as a maximum break], in other people’s eyes it may be, but for me, I’ve got no hard feelings against Neil, it was an excellent game and we always have good games. I get on with him so I just wanted to try and win the match and I thought my best way to do that was to get out of the arena as quick as possible.
“He had 99 and towards of that match it probably didn’t look as if he was going to get it and he was probably building up and when he did get it, emotion just came out. I know he likes to show his emotions and the crowd can enjoy that sometimes so I’ve got nothing against him doing that.
“He should take a lot of confidence from that, he didn’t give me many chances towards the end, if he plays like that he will have a good chance and I know if he gets to the final that Ronnie won’t enjoy playing against that, but if it works for him then so be it, he stuck to his gameplan the whole way through, it wasn’t enjoyable for me but that’s probably his gameplan, it’s not supposed to be enjoyable for me.”
He was soon followed by Neil, who like Judd, was complimentary of his opponent and was wise not the be drawn into criticising the other player, while also being very revealing as to how much that century break had meant to him:
“When I’ve missed the black on 94 against Mark Allen and then during the next frame I have missed the last red down the cushion on 92, I went into the match with Judd expecting that it would be a really open game, a lot of big breaks.
“But the first session, he handled the table conditions far better than I did, I was getting really frustrated with the table. It was very tough to play on and I let that affect me a bit and I thought that this could turn into a scrappy match and I may not get a hundred. My focus was thinking about the century of centuries and not just focusing on the match and I lost my concentration, lost my way and he played really well, he handled the table brilliantly, made a couple of centuries, 6-2.
“He possibly should have been 7-1. If it’s 7-1 then that’s really hard to peg back because when you are playing the afternoon session followed by the evening session, it is more than likely you are going to get pulled off a frame early, so he would have even had a bigger lead going into tonight.
“I thought I deserved to be behind in the match, I played way too slow, was not aware of it at all. I was under pressure, looking for problems, my shot time around 30-odd seconds which is disgraceful really, if I shaved my head people would think I am Peter Ebdon or something. I tried to say to Judd at the end of the match that I really didn’t do that on purpose, I know Mark Allen thought I was doing it and Terry Griffiths in the box thought it was tactics, but I wasn’t doing it at all.
“I thought I played a really good pace tonight, there was a lot of pressure obviously, you are not going to be playing as quick as you possibly can be so I thought that it was a performance that John Higgins has produced over the years, especially against Judd in recent times as well, I kept him away from the table for over an hour without him potting a ball.
“Tonight was the perfect performance and how I should have approached the start of the match but the first two sessions I was grinding it out and felt like I was walking through mud, I couldn’t get any rhythm whatsoever.
“Going into tonight’s session I had kinda written it off [the hundreth century]. It was great that it came at one of the most crucial times of the match to equalise at 11-all. I wasn’t even thinking about the century at all until maybe there were a few reds left, once the frame was completely won I really went for it, played a really good shot on the last red and couldn’t miss the green.
“When I potted the green I was just so happy seriously. I would rather make the century of centuries than make a 147 here, it was that important to me to achieve that milestone. Nobody will ever achieve 200 centuries in a season, it is just impossible, so for me to be the first player to reach 100 centuries in a season is a great honour and I’m sure that a lot of the guys will be trying to get there as well, but I am the first.
“I’ve made a couple of 147’s and it’s nowhere near the same achievement, absolutely nowhere near. He’s a young guy and he’s very disappointed that he has lost a quarter-final at the World Championship, he had a really big lead and I put him under pressure. Sometimes people say things that they don’t really mean. I get along with him really well, it’s fine. He can say what he does after the matches and he wished me all the best for the semi-final. It’s very hard to come in here after being so disappointed with the loss to be happy about it or congratulate me or be complimentary.
“It was 11-11 and the crowd were going ballistic, he just wanted to get out of there, I’ve never seen the crowd celebrate like that before. I’ve been in the Crucible when a couple of 147’s were being made and the roar was nothing like what I received, especially with the barrier raised up as well so we had the whole Crucible to ourselves. I don’t know if I would have shaken my hand either if I were Judd, you have just got out of there and re-focus, there is no problem with that.
“The previous record was 61 so it is an awful increase. It may raise the bar of break-building, it may make all the players try a bit harder once they get to 70 or 80. Some players lose a bit of concentration, a bit of focus and miss a relatively easy ball. Hendry was the one who always tried to clear up no matter what and that is the approach I have taken this season.
“I’m sure somebody else will make 100, Ding Junhui, if Ronnie played in everything I am sure he would as well, but I have set the bar now and it’s been a long ride. It has been a bit of an unwanted distraction for the last few months. Sometimes I have been going in and the playing conditions haven’t been idea for making breaks and you are coming to the table and you are counting the amount of reds on the table and thinking is there a hundred on, that started happening when I was around 70-80 and that is not a good place to be.
“Coming into this I had 93, I didn’t think I would achieve it here to be honest. I knew I had to make the semis or the final to achieve that so yeah it’s incredible.
I asked Neil whether there was any danger that he might become distracted once he had made the 100th ton and celebrated as he did:
Nah not at all, I was so confident then. I was just thinking, get a chance, win the frame from there on in, I won the next frame in a couple of visits, played well and the last frame I was really happy with as well, apart from potting that thinnish red and going in-off which was a bit unlucky, I didn’t miss, the shot on the green down the rail at the end with so much reverse side was probably one of the best shots I have ever played in my career.
At this point one of the Chinese journalists said ‘you win, but Chelsea lost’ which sparked a lot of laughter and all but ended what had been an enlightening press conference. I had definitely underestimated what it meant to Neil to make the ‘ton of tons’ and am delighted for him that he has been able to do it, even more so that I was there to witness it.
Having shaken his hand and avoided the media room trip to a casino in favour of a retreat to the Travelodge, it is now time to get ready for the semi-finals, with the Crucible now down to one table.
Who wins it now?