Masters 2012: Changing of the Guard?

With the start of the last eight today in London came the most eagerly anticipated tie of the round as four-time winner Ronnie O’Sullivan faced Judd Trump for the second consecutive major tournament following their meeting at the UK Championship. As was the case in York, the match would go the way of Judd which has left people debating whether we are now seeing a changing of the guard…

As the 1980’s came to a conclusion, Steve Davis was universally accepted as being the game’s leading player, but this was to change as a young Scot by the name of Stephen Hendry rose to prominence and having captured Steve’s world crown at the Crucible in 1990, with it took top spot in the world rankings and ultimately that aura of being snooker’s man to beat.

In the years since however it has not so much been those achievements that have come to symbolise the passing of the torch from Davis to Hendry however, but rather their two successive UK Championship finals played in 1989-1990, both won by Hendry, the latter in a decider following a particularly dramatic 30th frame in which Hendry potted one of the best blues under pressure that you could wish to witness.

Fast-forward little more than 20 years and following three significant victories for young Judd Trump against Ronnie O’Sullivan in the space of a couple of months, are we seeing a similar shift in power between one of the greatest players of his generation and someone who could go on to dominate the next?

On the one hand I think that there is an important distinction to be made between the current situation and that between Hendry and Davis all those years ago.

While back then Davis was the clear number one in the game, the same cannot be said for O’Sullivan at the moment who despite being ranked lower than his ability merits, is nevertheless without a full-ranking event win since his capture of the 2009 Shanghai Masters. Indeed I think that there is a case to argue that not since 2008 has Ronnie been the game’s number one player which could not be said for Davis in the 1980’s.

Using this logic, perhaps a win for Judd against John Higgins, the man who for me has been the best player since then, in the final of this week’s Masters could symbolise a more telling changing of the guard. That said, judging by his performance tonight to defeat Graeme Dott 6-3, John will have something to say about that.

The concept however is not just about results. While Higgins has been the man to beat for some time, it is easier to draw parallels between Ronnie and Judd due to other factors, namely their charisma and popularity with the fans.

Indeed while Ronnie has not been a regular tournament winner for a couple of seasons now, he has without doubt remained the game’s biggest draw with the fans and the man who regardless of form or ranking, has been the man to beat. Having been the natural successor to the likes of Alex Higgins and Jimmy White in terms of his flair and popularity with the fans, O’Sullivan has always been box office and with his attacking flair and youthful exuberance, Judd looks to be the natural heir in that department.

What was also telling today that after a couple of deciding frame victories against O’Sullivan earlier in the season, this time around victory was to prove emphatic as Judd moved 4-0 ahead at the interval before eventually taking a 6-2 win. While we have seen Ronnie inflict that sort of victory on many a player previously, it is not often that he has been on the receiving end. Does Ronnie still believe deep down that he is a match for Judd or has there been a permanent shift in the balance of power between the two?

Ultimately as with most things, we shall see. It is easy to predict landmark moments contemporaneously, but it is only in time that will we know the real significance of Judd’s recent victories against Ronnie, whether they do represent a true passing of the torch, or whether O’Sullivan will recapture his former glories. After all, of their recent meetings two could have easily gone the other way and it could have been Ronnie through to the last four this week.

But it isn’t, and now through to his third successive ‘major’ semi-final where he will taken on either Mark Williams or Neil Robertson, Judd already looks hard to beat…