The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
After Ronnie O’Sullivan entered the 2008/09 snooker season as the reigning world champion, it briefly appeared as though he wasn’t going to lose again.
The “Rocket” stormed to victory in the season-opening Northern Ireland Trophy with a 9-3 success against surprise finalist Dave Harold in August.
Just over a month later, O’Sullivan was in China for the Shanghai Masters and once again he came up against an unexpected title-deciding opponent in Ricky Walden.
The latter, yet to make his proper breakthrough in the game but a winner of the recently staged Six Red Snooker International in Thailand, won seven matches to reach the final – including standout triumphs over Stephen Hendry, Neil Robertson, Steve Davis, and Mark Selby.
O’Sullivan was expected to romp to a third ranking title on the trot, but Walden played brilliantly to fend off the world number one’s challenge and capture a maiden professional trophy – playing with 15 reds at least.
Incidentally, the six-red format that was used in Bangkok was a relatively new one – at least to Western audiences – and it was among a number of ventures at the time aimed at attracting a younger audience to a sport that was by now struggling desperately in terms of marketing.
The six-red guise was billed as snooker’s answer to Twenty20 cricket, and as we still see it as a somewhat regular fixture on today’s calendar it’s fair to say the format has enjoyed a degree of success, albeit small, which is not something that can be said of another radical idea that somehow made its way onto the circuit not long after.
Anyway, after Shanghai O’Sullivan’s 2008/09 snooker season tailed off dramatically in terms of his performances in the ranking events.
That said, a pair of victories over new rival Selby in both the Premier League and the prestigious Masters either side of the New Year meant that he was continuously adding silverware to his expanding cabinet.
His 10-8 defeat of Selby in London ended the Leicester man’s impressive unbeaten Masters streak, and with it O’Sullivan bagged a fourth victory in the invitational.
Higgins Back on Top
It was a much more familiar foe, however, who attracted the majority of the title-winning headlines in the remaining ranking events.
John Higgins had endured a miserable season as the reigning world champion in 2007/08, but his form returned in abundance with the pressure of that moniker off his shoulders.
In the Grand Prix, Higgins got back to winning ways with a 9-7 beating of Ryan Day in Glasgow.
To conclude the 2008/09 snooker season, Higgins featured in another couple of ranking finals.
First was the China Open, when the “Wizard of Wishaw” beat O’Sullivan and Day en route to a showdown with Peter Ebdon in Beijing.
The latter, still a consistent force among the top ten in the world rankings, won the last two frames to prevail in a close final and win his first tournament in more than two years.
A few weeks after it was the 2009 World Snooker Championship in Sheffield, and Higgins rode his luck with a pair of 13-12 triumphs over Jamie Cope and Mark Selby to reach the last four – where he faced newcomer Mark Allen.
The Northern Irishman had already elevated himself in remarkable fashion from a world amateur champion to a top 16 member in the space of just four years.
But Allen’s 13-9 defeat of defending world champion O’Sullivan in the last 16 endeared him to an even wider audience at home.
Higgins proved a step too far for the Antrim man, and a 17-13 scoreline for the former helped him through to his fourth world final.
His opponent was Shaun Murphy, who was bidding for a rare double after already securing the UK Championship crown in dramatic fashion in December – overcoming Marco Fu 10-9 with the timely aid of a fluked pink in the deciding frame.
At the Crucible, Murphy was running on empty after a succession of tough encounters of his own and Higgins duly ran out a comfortable 18-9 winner to match O’Sullivan’s tally of three world titles.
As luck would have it, Higgins and Murphy faced each other again less than a week later in Portugal for the World Series of Snooker Grand Final.
The World Series of Snooker had been initiated by Higgins and his manager Pat Mooney to provide additional playing opportunities to compete around Europe.
It had the backing of broadcaster Eurosport, which had been steadily increasing its snooker output for a number of years already, and it introduced pro-am events to the likes of Germany, Poland, and Russia.
Murphy gained a modicum of revenge by defeating Higgins to claim what proved to be the only World Series of Snooker Grand Final.
The venture briefly continued later in 2009 but then quickly disappeared from the calendar and would soon be synonymous with Higgins for more controversial reasons – but more on that next time.
From Bangkok to…Bahrain?
Meanwhile, two other players secured silverware in what was a relatively busy 2008/09 snooker season.
After years of underachievement, Ali Carter built on the confidence gained from reaching the 2008 World Championship final to emerge victorious in the 2009 Welsh Open.
Back in November, the tour travelled to the Middle East for the first and only Bahrain Championship.
Such was the shambolic organisation from the powers at the time, the WPBSA event was scheduled to clash with a Premier League night – run separately by Barry Hearn’s Matchroom.
It resulted in star players Higgins, Selby, and Ding Junhui all pulling out of Bahrain, while O’Sullivan and Steve Davis joined them by withdrawing on the eve of the event.
As it turned out, they probably chose wisely as it transpired to be a desperate week that probably epitomised the rundown nature of the circuit towards the end of that decade.
An empty arena – there was no pandemic – was the backdrop to Neil Robertson’s 9-7 victory over Matthew Stevens in the final.
The players didn’t return to Bahrain during the next campaign, and in fact they didn’t go to many places to compete at all.