Ronnie O’Sullivan reckons Neil Robertson will be the man to beat at April’s Betfred World Championship. The Rocket was edged out 10-9 by the Australian in a thrilling Tour Championship semi-final on Friday night despite playing near his best and making five century breaks.
O’Sullivan is back at world No1 for a fifth time in his illustrious and trophy-laden 30-year career and will be a strong contender to claim a record-equalling seventh world title.
Defending and four-time champion Mark Selby, and former winner Judd Trump will also have eyes on the World Championship prize at the Crucible.
But for O’Sullivan, 46, Robertson – who has only been world champion once 12 years ago – is the clear player of the season with three titles already and the favourite to end a Crucible drought.
O’Sullivan said: “I think Neil is the man to beat going in to the Crucible, he is playing fantastic. He is producing some really unbelievable stuff. He is beatable, but you would have to play really well.
“It isn’t really a surprise that he hasn’t won it more than once. If the venue was bigger and he could step in to his shots in those early rounds, he would have done better. That has held him back.
“But if he gets round that and gets to the semi-finals, he will be very tough to beat.
“I don’t put myself in any bracket nowadays, it is all paid match-practice for me. All those around me allow me to just turn up and play at tournaments.”
Robertson, 40, would love the chance to face the Rocket again on the game’s biggest stage and that could yet happen in a Sheffield final or semi-final – depending on the seeding ramifications of Sunday’s Tour Championship final.
They played in 2012 with both players in top form in the quarter-finals in what felt like the final. O’Sullivan won 13-10, and duly went on to lift the trophy.
Robertson said: “For a fan looking in from the outside, a final with me against Ronnie might be the one they would like to see this year. We could yet be in the same half of the draw, I think.
“But I would just love to play Ronnie on the single table at the Crucible, it is something I always wanted to do. You’d have that Aussie against England thing as well, it would be an unbelievable atmosphere and an incredible match, based on the one we have just had.
“We did play once before at the World Championship where deep down we were both convinced that if we won that game, then we would win the title. I thought that, and you could tell from his reaction after he won that match that he did too – and he went on to do that, and fairly comfortably as well.
“Maybe we are the big two this year, but you just don’t know in Sheffield. I need to sort out the thing I have with the dividing barrier to go deep.
“I do have a plan to deal better with that this year, something I have never tried, but let’s see how it goes. I think it will help me with the surroundings.”
Meanwhile Liang Wenbo has been suspended from snooker after pleading guilty to assaulting a woman. The former English Open champion was sentenced to a 12-month community order and fined £1,380 for the incident that took place in Sheffield last July.
China’s world No3 Wenbo had been due to take part in the qualifiers for the World Championship at the Crucible in April. The 35-year-old would have had to win two matches to reach the final stages in Sheffield and the first was scheduled for Saturday April 9th.
Wenbo is also now the subject of a disciplinary probe by the game’s governing body the WPBSA. And unless he files an appeal, and it can be convened in time – which looks highly unlikely - and that he were cleared of any disrepute charges, then there looks to be little or no chance he will take his place in that draw.
WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson said: “The decision to suspend a player with immediate effect is not one taken lightly.
“However, due to the violent and criminal nature of this offence, I have reached the decision that this is the only appropriate action to be taken pending the outcome of the formal disciplinary process.”
Wenbo was seen on CCTV hitting and kicking a woman during an argument in the early hours of 20 July last year – according to the Crown Prosecution Service.
He was also seen to drag her to the floor and push her up against a wall. At Sheffield Magistrates' Court last week, the Chinese player was also fined a total of £1,380.
The CPS said the attack on Charles Street in the city centre continued despite the efforts of another man attempting to intervene, with Wenbo "throwing punches towards her".
A 999 call was made by the woman, who was screaming in distress. The disgraced player, ranked 33rd in the world and in the past as high as 11, pleaded guilty to the domestic-related assault by beating on February 9.