Neil Robertson produced one of the performances of his life at the Celtic Manor in Wales last night, with a stunning five century 10-4 victory over Ronnie O’Sullivan in the final of the Cazoo Tour Championship.
The win sees him reverse the defeat he suffered at the hands of the world champion in the corresponding final two years ago and the manner in which he beat the sport's most decorated winner will long linger in the Australian’s memory.
Both men have been brilliant all week in the event exclusively for the World's top eight on the one year rankings. Robertson was a comprehensive 10-5 winner over six-time ranking event finalist Jack Lisowski in the opening round and then followed it up with an ominously good 10-3 win over three-time world champion Mark Selby in the semis.
O’Sullivan by contrast had a much harder fought route to the final, overcoming arch rival John Higgins 10-8 in the opening match of the week and then dragging himself back from the brink of defeat against Barry Hawkins on Saturday night to win a tense decider. Yet despite not having the benefit of a day off after a semi final which finished so late on the Saturday evening, there was no sign of fatigue from the man who was through to a fifth ranking final of the season.
The stage was set for an epic climax to the week and the opening frame was understandably nervy as a result. O’Sullivan eventually took it and that was the cue for a high scoring, enthralling afternoon of the highest quality. Robertson responded with a century in the second frame, before O’Sullivan added one of his own in the third for 2-1.
However, one of the reasons we were all looking forward to the match so much is that despite a losing record against the six-time world champion, the “Thunder from Down Under,” is one of a small number of players on the circuit who is not intimidated by O’Sullivan’s talent or reputation. He showed his mettle winning the next three frames with breaks of 70, 133 and 48. All of a sudden he was two clear and looking good at 4-2.
From a neutral’s perspective there was a perfect finish to the afternoon session as O’Sullivan roared back to level courtesy of the fourth century of the match and an important visit of 68. 4-4 going into the concluding session. It was perfectly poised.
Yet incredibly those seventh and eighth frames were to prove the last the reigning world champion would register, as Robertson treated us to an absolute masterclass of producing your best under pressure. Rarely has anyone delivered such a high quality barrage of six successive frames against the Rocket in a final of this magnitude and all O’Sullivan could do was sit and watch.
The reigning UK Champion reeled off breaks of 93, 75, 123 and 119 enr oute to 9-4 and then finished off in style with a visit of 114, his fifth century of the match and 11 of the week. It was breathtaking.
For a man who has broken just about every record in snooker, that defeat handed O’Sullivan one particular historical mark he would rather not have, as he became the first player to lose five ranking finals in a single season. To focus on the negative is harsh though, because simply reaching that many finals in a one campaign is quite some feat. And as was the case last night, O’Sullivan has come up against inspired opponents in all of these showdowns.
Judd Trump produced his best to beat him in Northern Ireland Open, Mark Selby was ruthless against him at the Scottish Open, Jordan Brown was inspirational at the Welsh Open and John Higgins played the best snooker of his career against him at the Players Championship last month.
It’s surely easier to be magnanimous when an opponent reaches new heights and you know you didn’t just hand them the title on a plate and that was Ronnie’s tone when I interviewed him live on ITV on the arena floor after the match. He acknowledged the quality and class we had all just witnessed and showed his own with very gracious words.
As for Robertson, bearing in mind who he beat and how he beat him, I think that is one of the most impressive victories of his career. It’s been an incredible journey for the man from Melbourne who was relegated from the tour the first time round on his 20th birthday. Last night secured him a cheque for £150,000 and the 20th ranking title of his career. By some margin he is the most successful overseas player ever to grace the sport.
The victory also ensures he continues his proud record of having won at least one title every single calendar year since 2006. He wasn’t close to tears but I could tell it meant a lot to him as he spoke.
Since Christmas the left hander has played sparingly, preferring to put some time in at home with his wife Mila and their two children Alexander and Penelope. His son is a promising goalkeeper and has really missed his football during lockdown. Having won the UK title in December and done enough to qualify for this top eight event, Robertson felt his son needed him more than snooker and that his priority should be his family.
Producing the selfishness required to succeed at the top in elite sport whilst being a parent must be an almost impossible balance to strike, but at the moment Neil Robertson is doing a pretty good job and the manner of this title means both he and Ronnie O’Sullivan will arrive at next month’s Betfred World Snooker Championship as two of the favourites.
O’Sullivan is one title away from tying Stephen Hendry as a seven-time Crucible champion, whilst 2010 winner Robertson hasn’t been beyond the quarter finals for seven years.
On the evidence of last night, whatever happens in Sheffield, we’re in for a superb climax to the season. Robertson will be raring to go.