Ronnie O’Sullivan’s frank admission on the eve of the defence of his World Snooker Championship crown that he was an “old man” and finding it harder to contend with the travails of the game he has dominated for so long left you wondering if, just maybe, he was foreshadowing an almighty upset at the hands of Pang Junxu on the opening day of this year’s tournament.
While age will eventually catch up with O’Sullivan, it seems that battle has not yet been lost. Opening-round victories at the Crucible are rarely glamorous but they are often tricky to navigate. Just ask O’Sullivan, who fell to a stunning defeat to the then amateur James Cahill in the first round here four years ago. As such, this was not vintage O’Sullivan in the opening act of his quest for a record-breaking world title number eight: but it was ultimately enough to get the job done.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall for Pang, the talented 23-year-old Chinese sensation, from the moment he took the wrong route to the arena after being introduced early on Saturday morning. The Crucible is a modest venue, and certainly nothing like the kind of stages snooker has performed in front of this season, with crowds as big as 9,000 in Hong Kong. In comparison, this historic theatre houses just 980 seats, with every single person in attendance tantalisingly close to the action.
But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in its allure. You can almost feel the history dripping from the walls any time you are inside, and that creates immense pressure. How Pang seemed to feel that in the first four frames of the morning session, when he made brief inroads but ultimately came unstuck on each occasion, falling 4-0 behind in what felt like the blink of an eye. O’Sullivan, in his record-breaking 31st Crucible appearance, never really felt in the mood to let Pang off the hook.
That lead was extended to five shortly after the mid-session interval but Pang displayed some impressive spirit to claw the deficit back to 6-3 by the end of the session. And while that fightback was ultimately for little in terms of the final outcome, it will have been a positive for Chinese snooker, which remains under a cloud given how 10 of their leading players are due to face a hearing over match-fixing allegations in the coming days. If any are found guilty, there will be lengthy bans: but Pang’s efforts here show there is talent aplenty in China.
O’Sullivan was in no mood to be on the wrong end of a fairytale comeback. He rattled off three of the first four frames in Saturday’s evening session to get to the verge of victory, before Pang won three in succession to claw it back to 9-7. Lesser players may have faltered at that stage, maybe even panicked; maybe even collapsed altogether. But O’Sullivan is no ordinary player, and he has been in situations like these time and time again through his years of dominance, and so often emerged on the right side of the battle. That was the case again here.
The Crucible crowd, many of whom were firmly behind O’Sullivan, sensed an upset and turned up the noise to back the reigning world champion. How he responded in frame 17, which proved to be the final one, with an imperious one-visit break of 81 to kill off any lingering doubt of a monumental upset. He may be approaching a half-century in terms of years, as he pointed out this week, but there is still life in snooker’s biggest draw. Nobody would write off his chances of winning a record eighth Crucible title in the fortnight ahead.