2021/22 snooker season
Features, Snooker Seasons

2021/22 Snooker Season: Ronnie O’Sullivan becomes the GOAT

The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.

After almost a full season played behind closed doors, snooker went back on the road to entertain fans during the 2021/22 snooker season.

It would take a while, however, for the sport to fully recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic that was still wreaking havoc with global health and travel.

For the second successive season, there were no tournaments in China which adopted some of the sternest restrictions of any country.

There were only three destinations outside of the UK during the 2021/22 snooker season – Germany, Turkey, and Gibraltar.

Overall prize money was down, which made it even harder for the lower-ranked players to sustain a living on the circuit.

A lot of the biggest events were still dominated by the marquee names, and the focus was again on Ronnie O’Sullivan by the time the World Championship came around in April.

The Rocket’s first attempt at claiming a record-equalling seventh Crucible crown was abruptly ended in defeat to Anthony McGill in 2021.

But miked up for an Amazon-produced documentary, O’Sullivan was rarely challenged throughout his 2022 tilt at greatness.

Following comfortable victories over David Gilbert, Mark Allen, and Stephen Maguire in Sheffield, O’Sullivan beat old foe John Higgins in the semi-finals.

A blockbuster showdown against rival Judd Trump ensued, but the latter didn’t perform at his best and O’Sullivan prevailed with an 18-13 scoreline.

In matching Stephen Hendry’s modern-day record of seven world titles, 46 year-old O’Sullivan became, in many people’s eyes, the undisputed greatest player of all time.

While he ended the 2021/22 snooker season on the highest of notes, it was debatable whether or not O’Sullivan was actually the best player of the campaign.

Just before Christmas earlier that term, he had beaten Neil Robertson 10-8 to claim the World Grand Prix and a record-extending 38th ranking title.

Yet aside from that defeat, the Australian enjoyed a remarkable run of form that saw him capture several of the calendar’s most lucrative events.

Robertson’s 9-8 victory over John Higgins to win the 2021 English Open title was a sign of the success to come.

The Melbourne man thrashed Barry Hawkins to capture the prestigious Masters in London and then overcame the same opponent to win the Players Championship a month later.

In early-April, Robertson triumphed at the Tour Championship with an unbelievable comeback from 9-4 down to beat Higgins in Llandudno.

Robertson headed to the World Championship as the player in the best form, but despite making a memorable 147 break, his challenge in Sheffield ended in disappointment again.

The title-deciding defeats for Higgins, meanwhile, became a familiar theme for the Scot throughout the season.

Once regarded as boasting the finest temperament in the game, Higgins began to regularly struggle with the winning line in sight.

He squandered an 8-6 lead in defeat to Mark Allen at the Northern Ireland Open – the latter delighting his home crowd with a fine fight back in Belfast.

Higgins was also a runner-up at the Champion of Champions to Judd Trump and a beaten finalist again at the Scottish Open, which was bizarrely played in Wales, although he did manage to emerge triumphantly in the invitational version of the Championship League.

Right back at the start of the campaign in July and August, David Gilbert won the ranking event edition of Championship League Snooker to finally land his maiden title at that level.

Elsewhere, Mark Williams, Joe Perry, and Judd Trump became champions of the British Open, Welsh Open, and the Turkish Masters respectively.

The opening ceremony in Turkey was marred by a drunken moment involving Robert Milkins – a disgraceful incident that concluded with the inebriated birthday boy getting his stomach pumped in an Antalya hospital.

It was that unusual situation that perhaps made his glory at the Gibraltar Open a couple of weeks later all the more impressive.

After 27 years as a professional and at the age of 46, Milkins put his recent troubles behind him to become a tournament winner for the first time.

Much of the rest of the 2021/22 season was dominated by younger international players who were making breakthroughs on the snooker scene.

China’s Fan Zhengyi stunned O’Sullivan in the final of the European Masters, while Hossein Vafaei became the sport’s first champion from Iran with his victory in the Shoot Out.

It was the UK Championship, though, that had everyone talking about the prospect of two up-and-coming stars.

Zhao Xintong and Luca Brecel orchestrated outstanding runs to the final at the Barbican Centre in York, where they showcased their prowess for attacking snooker.

The pair had been frequently talked about as possible poster boys for the game with only limited success up until that point.

But the first Triple Crown final in years between two players in their twenties had supporters salivating.

Zhao beat Brecel 10-5 to lift the famous trophy aloft, but there was to be further success for both in the months that followed.

The Belgian Bullet beat Higgins to claim the Scottish Open title just a week later, while Zhao humiliated Chinese friend Yan Bingtao 9-0 to win the German Masters in January.

A future where both players were set to regularly jostle for the major titles was seemingly in store.

But a seismic scandal that sent shockwaves through the sport was just around the corner, with Zhao and Brecel’s career arcs destined to move in completely opposite trajectories.

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The Snooker Seasons series will continue in the future.

Featured photo credit: WST

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