THE MASTERS began 40 years ago and is snooker’s most prestigious invitation tournament, a test of the game’s elite players.
In a revised version of a feature we first ran a year ago, here are our five greatest moments of in the event’s history…
(5) DAVIS STREAKS TO SURPRISE VICTORY (1997)
The Masters was, by Steve Davis’s very high standards, never one of his happiest tournaments. It didn’t help that, as a Londoner on home soil, he often lacked support for the unforgivable sin of being too successful.
However, by 1997 he appeared to be in decline and was settling into life as one of snooker’s elder statesmen. And with the wins drying up, people started to like him again.
Heading into the ’97 Masters Davis had hardly practised after being laid low with a heavy cold and had few expectations. Hard fought wins over Alan McManus and Peter Ebdon put him through to a semi-final against Ken Doherty, whom he defeated 6-1 to suggest a return to winning ways was now distinctly possible.
But standing in his way was a 21 year-old who Davis had inspired as a boy. Ronnie O’Sullivan, clearly on his way up to the very top, had already won the 1995 Masters and was favourite to prevail against a player apparently on the long slide down.
In the third frame, Lianne Crofts wrote herself into snooker’s history books by taking her clothes off and becoming the first streaker to interrupt a televised match, causing O’Sullivan to mop the brow of referee John Street, taking charge of his last match.
It was O’Sullivan who streaked into an 8-4 lead, compiling three centuries in the process but, perhaps now expecting to win, did not fell Davis with the knock-out blow and the grand old man started to come back at him.
Davis recovered to 8-6 and then constructed the highest break of the tournament, 130, to demonstrate that he was now playing the kind of snooker necessary to pull off a great escape.
With much of the Wembley crowd now behind him, Davis hit the front at 9-8 before dominating frame 18 to complete a six frame winning streak and win his third masters title after victories in 1982 and 1988. But coming at a time in which trophies had been in short supply, it remains one of his most treasured achievements.
Last season, Davis, now 57, won the World Seniors Championship, his first title on British soil since his Masters victory 18 years ago.
(4) THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1984)
In the boom years of the 1980s, Kirk Stevens was one of snooker’s pin-ups. Cutting a dash in his white suit, he looked like he could have been John Travolta’s stand-in for Saturday Night Fever.
But Stevens was also a terrific talent and when he played Jimmy White in the Masters semi-finals in 1984 it was a match much anticipated. It would become historic. That year the title would become White’s but it was Stevens who produced its moment of magic.
These two young, exciting players were good friends and played the game in a crowd-pleasing manner. It had already been entertaining fare when, in frame nine, with White leading 5-3, the Whirlwind had first dig at a red, missed, and Stevens got in. On 64, he took the cue ball in and out of baulk, missing everything to land nicely on the black, after which he held his nerve if not perfect position.
There was a scare when he cannoned into the pink off the last red, but he still landed on the yellow. He needed the rest to pot it, left the wrong angle for the green and had to take the cue ball around the angles for the brown. Even then, he finished wrong side to be ideal on the blue and ended up having to run the cue ball off the baulk cushion the length of the table to land on the black, a slight cut-back which Stevens sank for the 147.
This was the first – and only – frame Stevens’s fellow Canadian, the actor Donald Sutherland, had seen live. Not until Ding Junhui in 2007 did someone else match the feat by making a maximum in snooker’s leading invitation event.
Stevens lost the match 6-4 and as the 80s wore on, lost his way through an addiction to drugs. He dropped off the tour and was employed variously as car salesman and lumberjack before making a return to the professional circuit in 1998 but he was unable to stay on. He still plays in Canada.
(3) HUNTER COMPLETES HAT-TRICK (2004)
Paul Hunter followed up his ‘Plan B’ Masters success in 2001 with another dramatic victory the following year, rallying from 5-0 down to beat Mark Williams 10-9. In 2004, he was in the final again, against another crowd pleaser, Ronnie O’Sullivan.
This was a first – a final contested by two players wearing hairbands – and turned into a classic, although the early signs were that it would be one way traffic. It was never a plan of Hunter’s to start finals slowly and indeed he made two centuries in the first session but ended it in trouble, trailing 6-2.
The position looked even bleaker when O’Sullivan won the first frame of the final session but then came the trademark Hunter charge – breaks of 102, 82 and 109 helped him pull back to trail only 8-7.
It was a rare occasion for O’Sullivan: a major final in which he was not the overwhelming favourite with the audience. Hunter, especially at Wembley, had built a solid army of supporters through his on table performances and off table affability and they were ready to roar him to another improbable victory.
O’Sullivan won frame 16 with his highest break of the evening, just 41, but a fifth century, 110, gave Hunter new momentum and he ran out a 10-9 winner. Hunter thus completed a Masters hat-trick. He had won all three of his finals in deciding frame finishes after trailing heavily. In these three finals he compiled a total of nine century breaks.
Snooker during this period was not in the best of health, with tobacco sponsorship having been phased out and endless wrangling about the game’s administration. It was Hunter who did as much as anyone – and more than most – to keep the sport in the spotlight. Tragically, there were to be no more heroics. He died of cancer at the age of just 27 in 2006. Snooker and all those associated with it still miss him, especially when the Masters, on whose stage he shone so brightly, comes round again.
(2) HIGGINS BEATS O’SULLIVAN IN BLACK BALL THRILLER (2006)
A decade after they met as 19 year-olds, Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins crossed cues in the Masters final again but their 2005 match was a similar story, with O’Sullivan winning 10-3.
A year later they contested a third Masters final. With Wembley Conference Centre due for demolition, this iconic venue had its roof raised with one of the finest and most exciting matches the tournament had ever seen.
After winning the opening frame, O’Sullivan produced some heavy hitting as breaks of 139 and 138 put him 3-0 up and suggested a third runaway victory against Higgins. But the Scot, whose record in the Masters outside of his victory in 1999 and those two final defeats was nothing special, this time turned it around. The best all round player since Steve Davis, Higgins mixed attack and defence to great effect and came out of the afternoon leading 5-3.
The standard of potting and break-building in the evening session was supremely high as the match moved on to 7-5 in favour of Higgins before O’Sullivan pulled level, making a third century, 100, in frame 14. He then regained the lead at 9-8 before Higgins set up the decider a match of this quality deserved.
It proved to be a thrilling finale. O’Sullivan got in first with a long red to the green pocket and made a break of 60 but jawed an awkward cut-back red to the yellow pocket. From this, Higgins missed a long red but left nothing easy. O’Sullivan attempted a difficult pot, missed and left Higgins a chance to the right centre. He played it slowly and the red looked as if it would stay out but finally dropped to set up an opportunity to make a match winning clearance.
Under intense pressure, Higgins put together 64 to secure victory on the final black. These two great champions had given the Conference Centre a memorable send-off.
(1) WILLIAMS BEATS HENDRY ON RE-SPOT (1998)
Mark Williams was a member of snooker’s class of 1992 and, like his contemporaries John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan, would prove to be a star pupil.
The laidback left-hander broke through by winning his home event, the Welsh Open, in 1996 and more silverware would follow before the 1998 Masters, a tournament which remains one of the defining moments in his career.
Playing the great Stephen Hendry at the Wembley Conference Centre would have turned lesser legs to jelly. Indeed, when the Scot, who had lost his grip on the world title the previous year, built a 5-2 lead it looked like business as usual. Williams, though, crucially fluked a snooker in the last frame of the afternoon and cleared to the pink after the second of Hendry’s failed escapes.
A 100 break from Williams in frame 10 made it 5-5 and the players entered the final interval level at 6-6. A missed brown from Williams in the 13th frame let Hendry in for 7-6. In the next, leading 44-0, Williams fouled in potting a red and Hendry cleared with 69 before a 78 made it 9-6 to the six times champion.
He was poised to win 10-6 but missed the pink playing the cue ball at pace around the table to obtain position on the black. Williams won the frame and pulled back to 9-9 to set up a decider.
Hendry held the advantage at 56-34 with four colours remaining – 22 up with 22 on – but missed the brown from distance and Williams cleared to force a re-spot, a repeat of the first Masters final in 1975 when John Spencer edged Ray Reardon but this time live on television with considerably more money at stake.
With his fourth shot on the black, Williams left it pottable to the left centre but dead straight with the cue ball under the opposite side cushion. Hendry rolled it slowly across the nap and the black stayed out, leaving Williams with a much easier pot to the green pocket to complete his 10-9 victory.
The WPBSA ensured plenty of post-tournament publicity by sending the £145,000 winners’ cheque not to Mark J. Williams in Wales but another Mark Williams, a professional lower down the list who lived in London. Thankfully for the governing body he returned it to them uncashed.
The more famous Mark Williams went on to win a second Masters crown in 2003 as well as two World Championship and two UK Championship titles but few victories in his career were as dramatic or significant.
As he said shortly after that extra black finally went in 16 years ago: “This is something I’ll remember all my life.”
Photographs by Monique Limbos.