RONNIE O’Sullivan certainly isn’t the first player to criticise the playing conditions at the Coral UK Championship, but his comments on Sunday night will receive widespread attention.
This is primarily for two reasons. One, he is Ronnie O’Sullivan, the five-time world champion and biggest name in the sport. That may not be a great reason, but it is a fact of life. And two and arguably more powerfully, he hardly if ever complains about the conditions and is usually of the ‘get on with it’ school of thought.
Generally speaking if O’Sullivan wants someone or something to blame it is himself which made yesterday’s outburst all the more surprising. The tables, four-table arena set-up and referee Oliver Marteel were all criticised after a 6-3 win over Peter Lines at the Barbican Centre.
O’Sullivan said: “The tables are playing shocking, the cushions are bouncing…it’s like the ball goes on one mile an hour and comes off at three, it should be slower.
“I was actually at the second biggest tournament we play in thinking of trying not to use cushions. But your instinct kicks in and you battle on.
“It’s sad that a great event like this is like this. My mate thought it was a joke that the practise table was in a bar. Just get a proper venue and get two proper TV tables.
“It’s like asking Roger Federer to play on court 13 in front of three men and a dog. You just don’t do it to top players to sell your sport.
“Someone needs to be accountable and do something, this is your second biggest event, get it right and don’t cut corners. It is debilitating if you are a top player.
“Also tonight the referee has made a real bad decision. I feel like a Premier League football manager here, but he has called a foul on me.
“I have looked at it and it was a couple of inches away, it was a diabolical decision and maybe we need a fourth official or get their eyes tested because these are important decisions.”
The only people to escape his wrath were the Sheffield United physios who had improved the condition of his broken ankle with three days of work. It was a rare good day of praise for the Blades after months of bad publicity.
So has he got any sort of a case, or was this a baseless rant? The first thing to say is that O’Sullivan came to York off the back of a Champion of Champions final against Judd Trump in the kind of set-up he and other top players relish – one table, a packed house, and a natural amphitheatre, albeit artificially created. The four tables of the early rounds in York don’t match up in his view.
Secondly, he is not alone in believing that the second-biggest tournament on the calendar has lost some lustre. That feeling is shared by many top performers, and more so those put out in the sports hall.
Barry Hearn initially said the UK would not go back to York with 128 players after the many complaints last year, but with a backlash of support for the venue and city made a U-turn having been given assurances that improvements could be made.
The improvements for those that were not happy, if any, do appear cosmetic in nature, but we may well hear from Hearn on Monday.
One thing is certain, the continual carping in the first week of the new UK Championship is extremely tedious and overshadowing the play. Hearn, the players, the tournament officials and the venue need to get round a table and come up with a solution acceptable to all, everyone has to buy into it, and then stick to it. Whether that is 128 with a sports hall, or 32 after pre-qualifying.
The tables and other equipment have also come in for a lot of criticism from various quarters. Shaun Murphy remains adamant that not enough is being done over the removal or reduction in kicks, and complaints about the table and cushions crop up with regularity.
O’Sullivan very rarely complains about the table, but if the best player with the greatest control of the cue ball thinks there is something amiss with the cushions, it has to be taken seriously. And with the money and careers at stake, the authorities should never cease in the quest for the best conditions.
Arguably his strong criticism of Marteel should be taken less seriously. The footage may not have been conclusive but Lines thought it was a foul when O’Sullivan was called while bridging, and the official was later adamant the ball had moved.
The policy of not allowing referees the formal right of reply means we may not hear from Marteel, but expect him to be backed on Monday.
Photograph by Monique Limbos