Snooker: Potless and shotless demise of champions

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The Independent Online
NO FEWER than 11 seeds failed to reach their appointed places in the last 16 of the Liverpool Victoria UK Championship which reaches its climax at the Bournemouth International Centre next weekend. The exodus was led by Ronnie O'Sullivan, who did not strike a ball in defence of his title, and Stephen Hendry, who did not strike one right in losing 9-0 to a fellow Scot, Marcus Campbell, the world No 73.

The exits of so many of his chief rivals has strengthened the possiblity that John Higgins may complete a double of world and UK titles previously achieved only by Steve Davis, John Parrott and Hendry. Higgins advanced to the last 16 with a 9-4 win over Brian Morgan which was assisted by three black-ball steals with clearances of 31, 34 and, to lead 6-4, 48. Lethargic in the morning session - although he did make a break of 106 - Higgins ran through the last three frames in fine style with breaks of 51, 30, 92 and 69.

O'Sullivan, who is 23 next month, is suffering from nervous exhaustion and will not compete for at least a month. His manager, Ian Doyle, hopes that "snooker people will rally round him just as football people did with Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne, although his problem has nothing to do with drugs or drink". Its root cause is that his father is serving life for murder. O'Sullivan is no more reconciled to this enforced separation than he was at its outset six years ago and fears that his career may be over before his father sees him play again other than on television.

He has found no remedy for this ache at the heart of him, even though he has won titles and reached No 3 in the world rankings. The brief imprisonment of his mother for VAT offences three years ago and an acrimonious split from the mother of his infant daughter both set him back.

Even beating Higgins 9-7 to win the Regal Scottish Masters eight weeks ago gave O'Sullivan no joy, as he explained: "Everything seemed a grind for me all week but I suppose I've come away with something concrete. The only disappointment is that I like to entertain and I didn't do much of that."

His pounds 61,000 prize money did nothing to ease his depression. Both O'Sullivan and Hendry have been affected by snooker's internecine strife between pro- and anti-establishment factions. O'Sullivan said after winning the Scottish Open in February: "I felt terrible all week and a lot of that had to do with what's going on in the game. There was a horrible atmosphere in the players' room."

Hendry, who is also attached to the anti-establishment camp, seems to have lost his enjoyment of the game. But the real problem is in his mind "My confidence has drained and drained the last couple of years and it was inevitable that sooner or later something like this would happen," said Hendry after suffering the first best-of-17 whitewash of his career.

"It's no fun when you get over a pot and you know, even before you address the cue ball, that you're going to miss." That someone of Hendry's legendary nerve and skill can get into such a state shows that this most cerebral of sports has intrinsic pressures enough without external ones added.

For all his talk of remodelling his game, Hendry admits that only "one or two small things could be changed. Basically it's about attitude and confidence".

It must be Campbell's lucky week. Already the "dumbfounded" beneficiary of Hendry's total collapse, his talented but temperamental second-round opponent, Quinten Hann, a 21-year-old Australian, conceded their fifth frame yesterday at 0-44, snookered but with ample balls left for a possible recovery, and even more extraordinarily the eighth when still seven in front and Campbell needing to clear from green to pink for the frame. This left Campbell 6-2 ahead overnight.