The expression ‘epic frame’ is a snooker cliché, but the decider of yesterday’s Northern Ireland Open semi-final between Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Selby justified the description in spades, with knobs on, and then some (sorry).
It had been an engrossing contest from the off, O’Sullivan scoring heavily when among the balls but Selby nicking the closer frames, and, at 5-5, as they began the final frame, it was Selby who got in first. But at 46-0 up, nicely on the black into the left-top pocket, he missed. When a great player fluffs an easy but crucial pot like that, the TV cameras zoom in on his face and you see human frailty in the raw. Selby pumped out his cheeks, gripped the edge of the table as his usually ramrod-straight body slumped as though it were suddenly carrying a 50kg rucksack, and staggered back to his chair.
O’Sullivan walked forward, dollied an easy red into the left middle and began to pot fluently. None of the remaining reds were in awkward positions, and it was clear from Selby’s perma-frown that he thought all was lost. However, on 37, O’Sullivan potted a red in such a way as to leave himself uncomfortably straight on the following black. As is his way, he did not let the gravity of the situation moderate the ambition of his next shot: he played the black with forcing pace in order to work the cue ball into good position for the next red… and missed it.
Selby jumped to his feet, astonished but delighted. Such situations are made for his anthracite will to win. Efficiently he potted a few balls, but the black that O’Sullivan had missed had ended up next to the yellow in baulk, which made Selby’s break tricky. With one red left, he missed.
Now it was O’Sullivan’s turn to leap out of his chair, but, as he was still walking towards the table, the cue ball crept behind the yellow: Selby had fluked a snooker. Moreover, it was a devilish one. Three times O’Sullivan tried to escape from it; three times he failed. Each time Selby put him back in, his lead increasing by four points with every O’Sullivan miss. O’Sullivan finally succeeded with his fourth escape attempt – and, shockingly, the white struck the red in such a way that it slowly but inexorably crawled across the table into the left middle. It was a monstrous fluke. But even the Rocket now looked nervous and, inhibited by some of the balls’ being unfavourably positioned, he took his time. But he prevailed. As the final black disappeared into the yellow pocket, Selby stood, shook O’Sullivan’s hand, allowed himself to be chummily consoled by his conqueror, then, leaden-faced, marched out of the arena.
Afterwards, when asked how he had coped with the pressure at the end, O’Sullivan essayed an am-I-bovvered sang froid. No one bought it. Even he had looked nervous. Today he will play Judd Trump in the final. Anything could happen.