The four semi-finalists of the 2019 Players’ Championship, staged at the Guild Hall, Preston, were world No3 Ronnie O’Sullivan, world No5 Judd Trump, world No6 Mark Allen and world No8 Neil Robertson.
All four have won ranking tournaments this season – O’Sullivan the UK Championship, Trump the Northern Ireland Open and the World Grand Prix, Allen the International Championship and the Scottish Open, and Robertson the Riga Masters and the Welsh Open. O’Sullivan has also won the non-ranking but lucrative Shanghai Masters and the non-ranking but glitzy Champion of Champions, while Trump has also won the non-ranking but ultra-prestigious Masters. They are the four most successful players of the season so far, therefore, and the Players’ Championship has consequently run closer to form than have any of the season’s 15 ranking tournaments that preceded it.
Friday’s semi-final between Trump and Robertson was impressive, if fitful. Trump cruised to a 3-1 lead and, if Robertson might have been unsettled by his opponent’s impeccable play, so also he would have been cheered by the knowledge that he had not played badly himself; he had not had a chance to. As is so often the case, the interval was key, and Robertson returned determined to recover. That he did, assisted by a dip in form from Trump, powering to a consummate 6-4 victory, winning five of the last six frames, compiling a 140 total clearance en route, to book his place in the final.
The other semi was a very different kettle of fish. O’Sullivan – who, for reasons known only to himself, in TV interviews this past week has affected an Australian accent, and a ropey one at that – pulled all sorts of faces, telegraphing his unhappiness with the lack of friction between balls and baize (making screw, top and side hard to impart on the cue ball), but nonetheless beat Allen 6-0. Allen played deplorably, visibly morose, potting the odd ball but running out of position shortly afterwards, often by a margin not of inches but feet, and occasionally yards. He scored only 89 points in the match, which was done and dusted in well under two hours. There is something mysterious about the disparity between his best and worst form this season. At his best, he has looked unbeatable, and has duly blitzed his way to tournament victories (plural); at his worst, he has looked like a clumsy novice. Something is troubling him.
Today’s final will be an all-Aussie affair (assuming O’Sullivan maintains his Crocodile Dundee act) and Robertson, the genuine article (a Melburnian), will be up against the toughest opponent there is: an on-form Rocket. Nonetheless, Robertson’s semi-final victory over Trump required real steel, and his quarter-final win over reigning World Champion Mark Williams was calm yet ruthless.
It should be a good match. I expect it to be close. It is a best-of-19 showdown and, if it goes the full distance, or anywhere near, O’Sullivan may well clock up his 1000th ranking tournament century: he is currently on 997.