Well it doesn’t get more heart-stopping than the last four frames of the Ronnie O’Sullivan v Neal “Melbourne machine” Robertson death match at the Sheffield Crucible World Snooker championships on Monday.

O’Sullivan, having beaten Robertson down to take a 6-2 lead at the end of the first session, looked like he’d managed to get under the left-handed Australian’s skin, forcing him into the fatal loss of self-belief that sends even the best snooker player into the abyss.

Instead it was Robertson who sent O’Sullivan there, eventually rallying to win six games in a row off him, taking 404 points without Rocket Ronnie potting a single ball. It was relentless, pitiless playing, hardly elegant or exciting – snooker as if it had been prefabricated by BMW engineers in a factory in Bremen or somewhere.

By the end of it Robertson was leading 9-8 and then and then and then…he lost it again. To be fair, the mental stamina required to not let a player like O’Sullivan in is almost superhuman – but to be bloody about it, that’s 80% of the game. God knows how people find snooker boring. I have to go out of the room every three frames to put a wet flannel on my face. It’s Macbeth and Godot rolled up in one package, a sheer battle of wills in a setting of absurdity, with a table with some balls on it almost incidental to the action.

You could see that in the crucial 21st frame, with the match tied 10-all and Robertson leading 59-4. Then he let Ronnie back in, who then got within cooee of a win, faced an impossible pot in the late colours and tempted Robertson to have a go at it – which he duly did, missing the pot, and setting it up for O’Sullivan to take with utter command and thus get within a single game – really a single break – of the match, that he then took — ultimately winning 13 frames to 10.

The post-match interviews revealed the reasons behind Robertson’s casual play. He just wasn’t really fussed, forgiving himself, congratulating himself on playing well. O’Sullivan meanwhile was beating himself up about the second-rate game he’d played. And that was when he’d won. If he’d lost they would have had to hospitalise him.

And there’s the difference. Robertson doesn’t have that willingness to be destroyed by the effort to win, to have nothing left. You can get through snooker like that – Steve Davis dominated the game for a decade by being utterly unperturbed by results good or bad. Every new shot set the counter back to zero. But Robertson is a brooder, and a bad shot sends him off for a game and a half, before he gets his mojo back. If he wants to be more than an interesting top ten player with a freak long pot he better break one way or the other and fast.

Peter Fray

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