The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
The 2012/13 snooker season was another busy one in the fledgling Barry Hearn era, but two contrasting story lines of success and failure stood out above all else.
In May of 2012, Ronnie O’Sullivan had just captured the World Snooker Championship for a fourth time in his career when he made his latest threats to quit the sport.
Many believed it to be just another one of the Rocket’s mini tantrums and that he’d soon be back in contention for the big prizes at the most lucrative events.
But snooker was changing, and gone where the days when the sport took a summer-long break in between campaigns, instead being replaced with an action-packed schedule from June ’til May that effectively forced players to compete year-round or face the ranking consequences.
O’Sullivan, who for years endured a love/hate relationship with the game, was not keen on getting on board with Hearn’s business-like ideology, claiming that his former manager was “blackmailing” the players.
Away from the table, O’Sullivan was also dealing with family difficulties, suffering from glandular fever, and generally attempting to sustain his fragile mental health.
For once then he followed through with his threats, and bar one loss in a nondescript PTC event in Gloucester, O’Sullivan wasn’t seen again until returning to Sheffield at the end of the 2012/13 snooker season.
When he entered that year’s World Snooker Championship, there was much hubbub about whether or not he would be able to shake off the cobwebs and contend for the major honour again.
What transpired has since been noted as one of the best tournament displays in the sport’s history.
O’Sullivan didn’t just defend his crown, but he completely annihilated his competition and was rarely, if ever, troubled throughout the 17-day marathon.
One-sided victories against Marcus Campbell, Ali Carter, and Stuart Bingham took him back to the single table set-up, where he defeated Judd Trump 17-11.
Earlier that term, Trump had triumphed in the inaugural International Championship in China to briefly lead the recently reformed two-year rolling world rankings system, but he was unable to produce his A-game upon his return to the last four at the Crucible.
The final opponent was surprise package Barry Hawkins, whose success in the previous season’s quick-fire Snooker Shoot Out transformed him from a journeyman of sorts into a credible contender for silverware.
Hawkins won July’s Australian Goldfields Open with a 9-3 victory against Peter Ebdon in the final, and his subsequent run to the title decider at the Crucible included victories against Ding Junhui and a Triple Crown chasing Mark Selby.
The Hawk played admirably well against O’Sullivan, but there was only ever going to be one winner and the latter compiled six tons to cap a memorable 18-12 performance that cemented a first successful Crucible defence for any player since 1996.
O’Sullivan may have been ranked outside the top 16 in the world following his hiatus, but if anybody had any lingering doubts on whether he was the best player in the world or not, they were firmly squashed with his unbelievable comeback display.
One notable player missing from that edition of the World Championship, despite being ranked inside the top 16 for much of the campaign, was Stephen Lee.
In October, the five-time ranking event winner was suspended with immediate effect after a controversial 4-2 loss to John Higgins in a Premier League outing.
It appeared obvious to the masses watching that Lee, who at one point led 2-1, had missed guilt-edged opportunities which could have taken the game to a decider on purpose.
The Englishman had only recently been cleared of separate match-fixing allegations, but the authorities dug deeper after this latest stunt.
Lee, who turned professional in the same year as O’Sullivan and Higgins, was widely heralded as having the smoothest cue action in the game, and his suspension coincided with a recent return to form that saw him regularly feature at the business end of tournaments again.
Indeed, the then 37 year-old had just won an Asian PTC event in Yixing in the weeks leading up to his glaring on-TV fumble in the Premier League.
Lee was out of action on the Main Tour for the remainder of the 2012/13 snooker season, and while independent investigations were under way new evidence came to light on a number of his matches from years prior – including at the 2009 World Championship when he lost 10-4 to Ryan Day in the first round.
It took until September of the following season for a verdict to be reached, and it was damning – the longest ever ban handed to a player.
Lee, who was judged to have influenced the outcome of seven matches in 2008, when he reached the Masters final, and 2009, was given a 12-year ban.
It was around this time that snooker, a sport that was always heavily associated with gambling but now had more and more tournaments linked to the industry in terms of sponsorship, began to come down increasingly heavily and more frequently against match-fixers.
Whether that war is being won or not is questionable, but Lee’s heavy sentence sent a telling message to the players that if you got caught, you weren’t going to get off lightly.
For the Premier League, it was a stain on what transpired to be the final act of its long tenure on the schedule, with Stuart Bingham’s 7-2 triumph against Trump representing the last time the competition was staged.
There were victories elsewhere for the usual pretenders; John Higgins won the Shanghai Masters, Neil Robertson prevailed in the China Open, while Mark Allen defended the World Open.
The season-opening Wuxi Classic kick-started a campaign that boasted five ranking events in China in all, with Ricky Walden emerging with his name on that trophy for a second career ranking event success.
Wuxi’s own Ding Junhui won the PTC Grand Finals while Ali Carter bagged himself the German Masters crown at the terrific Tempodrom, which had quickly become one of the all-time favourite venues on the circuit.
The player of the season, though, was Mark Selby, and despite losing to Hawkins in the last 16 of the World Championship the Englishman ended 2012/13 snooker season as the world number one – an end-of-term feat that would become a regular occurrence for the Leicester man in the years ahead.
Selby conquered all in back-to-back major glories, defeating Shaun Murphy in the UK Championship final before a repeat 10-6 success against Robertson to claim the Masters title for a third time.
The Jester was missing one prized possession from his collection, but that was soon to change.