O’Sullivan Torturer’s given him Stockholm syndrome
Rocket has new-found admiration for main rival Selby
Ronnie O’Sullivan has had a change of heart about Mark Selby after getting to know the man he labelled snooker’s “Torturer”.
Defending champion O’Sullivan begins his bid for a seventh Dafabet Masters title tomorrow when he faces Liang Wenbo.
The dream ticket for many snooker supporters would be an Alexandra Palace final between O’Sullivan and Selby, after their gripping UK championship title match.
Selby triumphed in York, taking an afternoon stranglehold on the final before resisting a brilliant O’Sullivan fightback by producing spectacular snooker of his own.
The relationship between O’Sullivan and Selby has been strained in the past, with O’Sullivan’s attacking playing style countered by Selby’s more pragmatic approach. It led O’Sullivan to reveal in a 2013 memoir his scathing nickname for a player previously better known as the “Jester from Leicester”.
Such tags can stick, but the torture O’Sullivan has felt at the hands of Selby has given way to a better understanding between the pair, after they spent time in each other’s company during a run of exhibition events last autumn.
“We did a few nights and I like his mindset. I know he’s in the game for the right reasons and he’s a good lad,” O’Sullivan said.
“I know he’s a fierce competitor on the table and I know that if he does sometimes get a bit slow and play long, drawn-out frames, that’s not because he’s playing me. That’s just sometimes how it can go for him.
“I know it’s not intentional, he’s just a tough match player.”
O’Sullivan has suffered more painful defeats at the hands of world number one Selby than the setback in York.
In the 2010 Masters final, Selby charged from 9-6 behind to beat O’Sullivan 10-9 and, four years later at the Crucible, it was a similar story as the Rocket let a 10-5 lead slip away as Selby scooped his first world championship title.
Their conflicting ways of thinking make each match between Selby and O’Sullivan an occasion to savour, however.
“I hit them with everything I’ve got, it’s like a wall and I try to walk right through it,” O’Sullivan said.
“Mark will try to defend and defend and make it difficult for you at times. I just want to get in there and eat the balls.”
While touring Bulgaria with O’Sullivan in the autumn, playing to new audiences, Selby welcomed the opportunity to forge a bond.
Selby, 33, knew all about O’Sullivan’s dislike for his methodical play, and it was a chance to show another side to his character.
“When he was making his comments I didn’t really know him – I had never gone out for food with him or anything,” Selby said.
“Then I did some exhibitions and shows with him around Europe, spent time with him and he is a great guy and it’s great he is still playing.
“Up until the world championship final in 2014, when I beat him, I probably still didn’t have his respect. But to beat him over that distance I think he knew it wasn’t a fluke.
“Also to come from 8-3 down and 10-5, since then I think I have won his respect and I hope it stays that way.”
Selby has replaced O’Sullivan as the man to beat and he heads to north London as the holder of the World and UK titles.
His own campaign begins on Wednesday, with Selby aspiring to add to the Masters titles he landed in 2008, 2010 and 2013.
“It would be nice but you get four tough matches there,” Selby said.
“I’ve got Mark Williams, one of my good friends on tour, in the first round.”
Selby, in a typically self-deprecating style, is playing down his trophy prospects.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said, “But if I’m playing like I have been I’ll have an outside chance.”
TOP TABLE: Ronnie O’Sullivan recently spent time with world champion Mark Selby
Man to beat: World champion Mark Selby has usurped Ronnie O’Sullivan as the best in the game