Evening all. I usually write in the evenings to carve out time to do my “real” job guilt-free during the day. This can sometimes work well – providing an outlet for my creative juices as the salty aromas of dinner gradually seep in through the crack in the door of my office.
Today, however, this strategy was a mistake. After a fairly intense and stressful day at work, I finished relatively early and decided that I would start writing in the early afternoon to earn a Friday night off. But I was tired and needed a break, so I put on the Champion of Champions semifinal between Mark Selby and Neil Robertson, promising to head to a wifi-equipped coffee shop after a couple of frames. Three, maximum.
As the deciding frame of their best of 11 contest unfolded, I suddenly realized that I had spent three hours in front of the TV and had written not one word. I was too engrossed in the match to ever contemplate leaving it unfinished, and those Friday night beers would have to be pushed back. But at least I now knew what I was going to write about.
It was a quite incredible battle between two modern greats of the game. To use a terrible cliché, a match that had everything. The first four frames were split, Selby edging in front before being pipped back by Robertson. During the mid-session, ITV pundits Stephen Hendry and Ken Doherty commented on the impressive start to the match from both players; despite a couple of errors here and there, they had already produced one century and four further breaks over 50. The scene was set for a tight finale, with both predicting a 6-5 final scoreline.
What then ensued was some of the highest level of snooker I have ever seen. In frame 5, Selby stroked in a 131 total clearance. Robertson then responded by taking a tight sixth to level again. In the next, Selby once again inched his nose in front with a 137 clearance, before his blonde-haired Australian opponent took the lead for the first time with breaks of 141 and 121. Unperturbed, Selby plundered another 137 – the fifth total clearance in six frames – to level at 5-5 and set up the decider the contest merited.
As the final frame started, Robertson had a pot success rate of 96% percent, with his opponent trailing on 95%. If you don’t follow snooker closely, that basically equates to no more than a handful of errors across 10 frames and five hours of pressurized tournament competition at the highest level. They are mind-blowing statistics.
Understandably, the decider was not quite as smooth sailing. Having put so much into the match and with the finish line approaching, both players were naturally loath to make the mistake that could cost them victory. The average shot time, which had been floating around the breezy 20-second mark throughout, gradually crept up to above 24 seconds as the balls went awkward. Safety, for the first time, began to dominate and pots were missed. Both had their chances, but a calm break of 54 was enough for Robertson to eventually claim his spot in the final (and, more importantly, allow me to get to work).
I was slightly surprised that I had become so invested in this match. Neither Robertson or Selby are my favourite players, and snooker is not exactly the most action-packed spectacle for the neutral. I was a big fan of Selby when he made his breakthrough by reaching the World Championship final in 2007. Armed with a red mohawk and a ridiculously long takeback on his cue action, the Englishman added a level of flair and drama that is often missing from the snooker table.
But as he has evolved as a player, that drama has gradually dissipated. He has slowed down his rhythm and become a master of the tactical side of the game. Ronnie O’Sullivan, in many ways Selby’s snooker antithesis, famously labelled him the “Torturer.” He changed his cue action and his hair (both probably sensible decisions, it must be said) and has focused on grinding ahead of entertaining. Win or lose, his dull expression never changes. His evolution has brought success, of course: he was number one for six consecutive years and won countless titles, including thrice at the Crucible. All very well, but success doesn’t necessarily make you a fan’s favourite (just ask Jose Mourinho).
As for Robertson, he is obviously a brilliant potter and break builder with almost 750 centuries to his name. But he, too, can be guilty of playing at a painfully slow pace as he checks and rechecks the angle on every pot a million times. Like Selby, he is also frustratingly expressionless during matches. Sport is about passion and fluctuating moments of joy, hope and despair. I know they are concentrating and in the zone and all that, but show some emotion, man!
Today, though, is not a day for criticism. Both played fluent, aggressive and practically faultless snooker. And now, to thank them for the entertainment they provided, I’m off to have a few beers and tacos in their name. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.
Have yourselves a great weekend and I’ll be back here with more for you on Monday. Until then.