The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
After capturing his maiden world crown, the 2001/02 snooker season often centred around the fortunes of Ronnie O’Sullivan.
However, like all first-time Crucible champions, the “Rocket” found himself with an even bigger target on his back than usual.
It was a very steady, if unspectacular, period for O’Sullivan, but he did manage to end the campaign as the world number one for the first time in his career.
There was only one standout success, though, as the Englishman romped to victory in a UK Championship that was staged at the Barbican Centre in York for the first time.
O’Sullivan was tested in his 9-8 quarter-final victory over rival Peter Ebdon, but aside from that it was generally a comfortable week’s work.
A 10-1 demolition job of Ken Doherty in the final ensured that his cycle of winning the tournament every four years continued, having first tasted glory as a teenager in 1993.
O’Sullivan concluded the 2001/02 snooker season in what was becoming a familiar fashion, by claiming the invitational Premier League, but despite reaching the latter stages on multiple occasions he found that trophies were hard to come by.
Several semi-final exits proved to be costly, including in the World Championship when he was aiming to defend the silverware and break the “Curse of the Crucible”.
He was looking strong for a while, coasting through the opening stages before a 13-10 triumph against the in-form Stephen Lee in the last eight.
That set up an intriguing showdown against Stephen Hendry, a player he had already faced twice in Sheffield – losing on both occasions.
Nowadays, O’Sullivan and Hendry are close chums, but that wasn’t always the case and there was an intense feud between the pair in 2002.
O’Sullivan, somewhat stupidly in hindsight, quipped that he wanted to send Hendry, whom he used to share manager Ian Doyle with, back to his ‘sad little life in Scotland.’
The mind games backfired, and it was Hendry who punished O’Sullivan with a 17-13 defeat to reach his ninth Crucible final.
By Hendry’s own admission, after beating his biggest foe he thought that a record eighth world title was inevitable.
Earlier in the campaign, the former world number one captured his first ranking event of the decade with success in the European Open.
His opponent in the title decider turned out to be Ebdon, a player he had faced and beaten easily at the same stage six years earlier.
The latter produced a remarkable fight back to deny Matthew Stevens in the last four, and at this point of his career he was building up his reputation of being a competitor you’d have to scrape off the table.
So it proved, as a topsy-turvy encounter ebbed one way and then the other with it becoming more and more inevitable that a decider was going to be required to separate them.
When Ebdon missed a straight black in the penultimate frame with the winning line in sight, jumping back in anguish in one of the classic Crucible moments, Hendry was able to force the 35th and final frame.
Yet, for once the “King of the Crucible” was fallible when it mattered most, and Ebdon held on to record the greatest feat of his life.
Several other players enjoyed their share of the limelight throughout the 2001/02 snooker season as well.
John Higgins was in imperious form at the outset, winning the first three tournaments that he entered.
The Glaswegian sealed victories in the Scottish Masters and British Open soon after he lifted the Champions Cup at Mark Williams’ expense in Brighton.
Williams, despite ultimately surrendering his world number one position, was in good shape too, collecting back-to-back ranking event titles in China and Thailand.
The Welshman’s sequence of success came shortly after he experienced disappointment at the Masters in London.
The 2002 edition of the prestigious invitational was one of the most memorable as it produced one close encounter after another.
Williams upset a raucous crowd to deny local hero Jimmy White in a semi-final classic that lasted the distance, and in the final he came up against Paul Hunter who equally required all eleven frames to negate the challenge of Alan McManus.
Hunter had just won the Welsh Open, but when the Leeds potter lost the opening five frames of his showdown with Williams, his hot streak appeared to be at an end.
We should have known better, as the affable young talent had memorably underlined twelve months earlier with his infamous “Plan B” inspired comeback against Fergal O’Brien.
Hunter had an affinity with the Wembley Conference Centre and was inspired again as he fought back to secure another unbelievable 10-9 triumph.
One other significant performer of that year was Stephen Lee, the fourth high-profile member of the Class of ’92 who didn’t quite match the levels peaked by O’Sullivan, Higgins, and Williams.
This season was one of Lee’s best, though, as he embarked on runs to three ranking event finals and won two of them – including a second Grand Prix title in Preston, which was rebranded as the LG Cup.
Lee, who will feature in far less ceremonious circumstances later, was a prominent figure and a mainstay of the top ten in the world during the first decade of the century.
But despite possessing one of the game’s greatest cue actions, he never quite boasted the stamina to last the course in the bigger events.
Contemporaries O’Sullivan, Higgins, and Williams – snooker’s Trinity – were relentless in their pursuit of silverware, a recurring theme that will be revisited yet again next time.
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