Winning and losing at the Crucible

I've noticed an interesting pattern among those players who reach the final in the World Championship in Snooker. For many of them it seems better to actually lose the final. Of course everyone wants to win it, but if you take a look at the history it shows that handling a victory is a lot more difficult than winning in the first place. This naturally doesn't hold for the more experienced players like Ronnie O'Sullivan but for younger, more inexperienced players, being the runner up might be one of the best things that happened to their careers.

The first piece of data I'd like to present is the fact that no-one has ever defended the title the first time they became reigning world champions. Steve Davies, Stephen Henry, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Mark Williams, none of them could repeat their first victory the year after. Indeed, it's only Steven Henry and Steve Davies who have defended a title at all in the Crucible.

Next let's look at a few examples of wins and losses in recent history. In 2005 we saw Shaun Murphy take the victory. He dismissed his opponents with a form of play never seen before nor afterwards. No shot seemed to difficult for him, he potted everything in sight. But after becoming the world champion he struggled a bit and basically had to rebuild his whole style of play, leaving his impossibly offensive play for a more tactical one. He has said in interviews that he was very disappointed not having defended his world title and that surely must have had a detrimental effect on him.

Another example of a struggling champion is Graeme Dott. He won in 2006 but after that he started a decline which hit rock bottom during 2008. It seems he didn't pot a single ball during that year, I even saw him miss the pack of reds in the first shot of a frame. I'm glad to see though that his slump is over, he's won a couple of matches this year and won his first match this World Championship against the ever unlucky Barry Hawkins.

What about those who lose the final? Here we have two excellent examples to support my theory: Mark Selby and Ali Carter. Mark Selby has become the one that many people see as the true contender against O'Sullivan. And indeed, after his defeat against John Higgins in the final at the Crucible in 2007 he has displayed a lot good snooker and won several tournaments. It seems as if he took his game to the next level after being in the final. The same holds for Ali Carter who has had a fantastic season, taken his game to absolute top class and won his first tournament. It's clear that both these players has benefited a lot from their successes in the World Championships.

If you know your snooker history you'll be likely to point out that Graeme Dott did in fact lose a final before actually going on to win it. The thing is, I don't remember enough to recall how that affected his play afterwards but it could have been that bad since he came back to win the championship two years later. So if anything I'll count him as yet another case in point.

So there you have it. For many players it might actually be ultimately better for them to lose the final. They have a lot less pressure to live with, only the fantastic experience of performing really well at the most important tournament of the year. It's the really great players who manage to come back after an early win in their career and repeat it, even several times. This is a testament to how important the mental part of snooker really is.


Beating O'Sullivan

It's been a while since I wrote something snooker related but since the world championship is around the corner I thought I'd jot down some of my thoughts.

Just as last year, the player to beat is Ronnie O'Sullivan. Indeed, he's always the player to beat but in recent years he has found a bit of calm that makes him more stable and his performance more even than before. For his opponents that means it's much more unlikely that he has a bad day which makes it at least possible to beat him.

Back in the years, one of the more subtle symptoms that The Rocket had a bad day was that he would start playing faster and faster. He normally has a very high potting speed but sometimes he would increase it to go at a neck breaking pace. O'Sullivan explains this behavior in his autobiography "Ronnie" that it depends on him feeling bad and uncomfortable and he just wants to get out of the place. My own interpretation is also that if his head is full of bad thoughts then increasing the speed means that he needs to force himself to focus on the snooker and thus keep the bad thoughts out, at least momentarily. Even though this speed-snooker has many times made him lose matches I think it also has helped him keep up the pace in his over-all game. A bit like speed-reading were you can increase your reading speed by successively increasing the reading pace until you no longer understand what you are reading. If done repeatedly this will make you read faster over time. And I think we're seeing the same effect in Ronnie.

Over the years O'Sullivan has acquired a mental advantage over many players. Just the fact that playing against O'Sullivan seems to instill a fear, or makes his opponents full of adrenalin. In these cases it doesn't take that much to win, O'Sullivan can play for him average snooker and still win comfortably. I've seen both Stephen McGuire and Ali Carter coming in full of adrenalin being determined to give The Rocket a match, but failing then missing the simplest of pots simply because they haven't been able to calm down. Another example was a match against Tom Ford, where O'Sullivan play some of the worst snooker I've ever seen him play. But Ford just couldn't take the chance he got. Despite leading the final frame and the balls being in good position he failed to win the match. It looked almost as if he just refused to win, even when O'Sullivan gave him chance after chance. O'Sullivan won in the end (and in the next match he beat Ali Carter with five centuries, of which one was a 147).

There are a few players which are not intimidated by O'Sullivan. None of the old masters like Davies, Henry, Higgins, Doherty, Williams, Ebdon and Fu get their nerves out of control. They're just too professional for that. But there are some younger players who also can handle the situation with The Rocket at the table. The first and foremost is of course Mark Selby but also Ricky Walden seem to be doing just fine. These are the players that have a chance to beat O'Sullivan and can hope to beat him on one of his bad days.

Who can beat O'Sullivan when he plays his best snooker? Some people say none. Others say Higgins is the only one with the capacity. Personally I don't know. Sure, Higgins can give O'Sullivan a match but ever since Higgins won his last World Championship he hasn't been able to demonstrate his best game, and when he has been playing good, it's only been for short periods of time. So realistically, over a long match I don't think Higgins has what it takes to beat O'Sullivan. Not anymore.

O'Sullivan used to have a weak spot when it came to complicated defensive games. It was possible to get him out of balance and he would lose his patience. He has improved a lot in this respect the last couple of years. It seems he has decided it's ok and sometimes even fun to battle out a defensive duel and he's not going to be thrown off by it. Sure, he can still improve his defensive game but it is still good enough to outmaneuver many of the players in the circuit.

It's going to be great to see Ronnie again in the crucible. That's when he's the most concentrated and really wants to win and it's at those moments he plays his best snooker. And he is looking as hard to beat as ever. Is there anyone capable of beating him? There might be a few players who will give him a match but I think in three weeks time we will see Ronnie O'Sullivan get his fourth and second consecutive world title.


Joke of the Day

"Doctor, doctor! I think I'm a snooker ball, what should I do?"
"Go to the end of the cue."
From the blog 147 at eurosport.se.