By Fin Ruane
On the morning of the greatest snooker show on earth and the question remains as to whether Ronnie O’Sullivan can win a third world title in a row and become world champion for a sixth time. However, the bigger question that has been posed all season will undoubtedly surface again over the course of the next two weeks – the question of “who is snooker’s greatest player on the world stage” will again come under the snooker microscope.
There are several possible contenders but in reality they are whittled down to simply four because of the number of world titles they have won. Ray Reardon, Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan have amassed no fewer than 24 world titles between them. O’Sullivan has five, Davis has six, Reardon has six whilst “King of the Crucible” Stephen Hendry has won a record seven.
Many argue about different eras and the standard of opponents and I take that on board. That’s why I have included seven-time finalist Ray Reardon. A magnificent player, Reardon won the last of his world titles in 1978 when he overcame Perrie Mans in a rather one-sided affair, although the 25-18 score may suggest otherwise. Reardon’s opponents in his six final wins were not serial winners on the circuit and the ease of his wins suggested so. His 1976 final win over Alex Higgins was all the more comfortable after Higgins conceded the final after missing a pink in the third of a four session final.
Higgins did gain revenge over Reardon in 1982 which in turn was Reardon’s last final. No matter of the standard of player, Reardon deserves mention by way of seven final appearances, two of which were in the ‘modern’ era at the Crucible.
Steve Davis entered the World Championship just as Reardon was enjoying his final Crucible years. Davis changed the way the game was too good for the establishment and from 1981 – 1989 the ‘Nugget’ finished in every final bar the 1982 Reardon v Higgins contest.
Davis lost two finals back-to-back, the most famous being the 1985 famous black ball showdown to be followed twelve months later by defeat to qualifier and surprise winner Joe Johnson.
He licked his wounds and came back to win the title for the next three years in a row. With eight final appearances and six wins Davis deserves his place in a list of legendary players.
Just when everyone was used to ‘Mr. Interesting’ dominating the game, along came a young Scotsman by the name of Stephen Hendry. If Davis had changed the way the game was played Hendry upped the ante and began to play snooker with a dominance which included break building on a different level never scene at the Crucible.
Hendry was utterly ruthless and alongside his scoring power and safety game he demonstrated so many times the ability to win frames from impossible situations, when the table seemed safe with several reds on cushions. These were soul-destroying for opponents, no more so than for Jimmy White who Hendry defeated four times in world finals – three of which were in a row. White, we remember, did have his chance in at least two of those finals. In 1992 he led Hendry 14-8 but surrendered an incredible ten frames in a row as the Scot claimed the title from an almost impossible position.
Two years later Hendry did the same again to the ‘Whirlwind’, this time clearing up after White missed a black off the spot when he seemed destined to finally win his maiden world title in the deciding frame.
Sad to think that would be the last chance Jimmy would realistically have to win the World Championship.
Hendry instead became champion for the fourth time and went on to add two more crowns in 1995 and 1996 against Nigel Bond and Peter Ebdon respectively.
The following year Hendry’s winning run came to an end, losing 18-12 to Ken Doherty. I remember that final fondly but those who can remember it well will recall Ken leading 15-7 only for Hendry to win five frames in a row to trail 15-12. A missed red by Hendry when he looked like making it 15-13 amid another famous comeback put paid to that and stopped his gaining momentum. Ken won the next three frames to halt Hendry’s sensational run of 29 unbeaten matches at the Crucible.
Hendry had to wait two more years before he could make it seven title wins and in 1999 he achieved that when he defeated Mark Williams 18-11. Three years later in 2002, Hendry reached his ninth world final against Peter Ebdon and when the encounter went to the 35th and final frame few would have bet against another famous Hendry victory. Ebdon, though, determined as he had been throughout the tournament, grit his teeth and in the end won the shoot-out pretty comfortably. That was Hendry’s last appearance in a world final.
A year before Ebdon’s win, Ronnie O’Sullivan landed his first title and a new era of dominance was suggested by many in snooker circles. O’Sullivan certainly gave plenty of excitement before at the Crucible – most notably in 1997 when he made that majestic five-minute and twenty-second maximum.
O’Sullivan had to wait three more years before he could claim his second world title and even longer for his third as four years would pass before he could claim that in 2008. That four-year wait struck O’Sullivan again before he could capture his fourth. His fifth and probably his finest moment came last season when, after taking an almost season-long sabbatical away from the game, Ronnie returned and defeated Barry Hawkins to successfully defend the trophy.
The Crucible record of the Chigwell cueist will state that he has played five finals and won five. With every respect to his opponents he was overwhelming favourite in four of those clashes whilst his first title win against John Higgins was a much closer and hard-fought 18-14 win.
These are the World Championship and Crucible Theatre’s best performers.
They have each won snooker’s greatest prize and numerous ranking titles between them. They have their own unique style of play. Reardon the old school match player, Davis the man who brought the game into the modern era, Hendry the man who became such a winner due to his ruthlessness and break-building and O’Sullivan with his swashbuckling ambidextrous attacking play, so fast that at times made his nickname the “Rocket” seem redundant.
We all have our favourite and one we would watch at any time day or night. Yes there are perhaps one or two others. John Higgins has reached five world finals, winning four, and if he was to become champion again this year then he would deserve a place on this list. Others such as Mark Williams, Ken Doherty and Greame Dott all reached three finals, winning at least one.
Yet, for me there is only one player who can be called the greatest on the word stage. A player who dominated the game and became such a winner he broke more records and incredibly reached nine world finals. Stephen Hendry is for now in my eyes the greatest of them all.
Who can replace him? O’Sullivan has that opportunity this year to win his sixth title and become one step closer and perhaps next year he can match Hendry’s magnificent seven.
For now, though, the greatest is Stephen Hendry.
Enjoy the snooker.
Follow Fin on Twitter @Fin_Ruane and visit the CrossGuns website here.