NEIL ROBERTSON and Shaun Murphy will face off for the £200,000 first prize in the Dafabet Masters final on Sunday.
Their Alexandra Palace showdown is a battle between two talented, self-confident 32 year-olds, well matched in terms of long potting prowess and break-building.
Robertson comprehensively outplayed Ronnie O’Sullivan in their semi-final. The key to this was his mental preparation. He went out into the arena simply refusing to be intimidated. He played the balls, not the man.
Murphy also impressed in repelling the challenge of Mark Allen. Like Robertson, he relishes the big stage and thrives on the chance to perform when the pressure is on.
They first played each other in the qualifiers of the 1998 UK Championship when they were both just 16 and in their debut professional seasons: raw, inexperienced but clearly with something about them.
In those days they both went for everything – if they were on or not – and got plenty but have over time of course refined and toughened their match games to compete with the best in the world.
Robertson is the most successful non-British player in the game’s history, the only one to have won snooker’s big three titles and been world no.1.
There is only one thing to do when you’ve won the biggest events: try to win them again. It is this which elevates a great player on to the status of legend in any sport.
Just five players have won each of the World Championship, UK Championship and Masters more than once: Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams. So as lists go, this is about as exclusive as it gets.
One of the things I admire about Robertson is that he does not chase popularity or wish to be ‘one of the guys.’ There are many friendships between the players, it’s inevitable when they spend so much time together, but the three most successful champions of the television era – Davis, Hendry and O’Sullivan – did not worry about being well liked by their peers. They were too busy beating them on a regular basis.
Also, the Australian is just himself, and satisfied to be so. In the arena he does have the swagger you associate with winners but off the table there is only humility.
When he beat Murphy in the 2012 Masters final, Robertson’s young son Alexander was brought out into the arena to enjoy the celebrations. Three years on and he’ll understand what it’s all about a bit more.
Like Robertson, Murphy is not one of the circuit’s moaners. Indeed, if his snooker career ever wanes he could probably find work as a motivational speaker.
To Murphy, being a snooker professional was all he ever wanted and it’s clear he loves the fact that he achieved his dream. But you love it more when you win and among the high points have been some near misses.
Victory today, then, would be a significant moment in his career: the completion of the much talked about Triple Crown. Nine players have won the big three – Davis, Hendry, both Alex and John Higgins, O’Sullivan, Williams, Terry Griffiths, Mark Selby and, of course, Robertson. Again, this is a list any snooker player would wish to be on.
So to the final, where the Alexandra Palace crowd and watching television audience are surely in for a treat.
One factor today is likely to be safety play and in this area Robertson does seem to hold the upper hand. Tactically he is now right up there with the best.
Otherwise it’ll come down to the same things it always comes down to: who can get in, who can stay in and who can hold their nerve.
This tournament has taken some winning. The standard of snooker played has been consistently high but now we’re down to the wire, where it really is about handling the occasion and continuing to produce the goods with the pressure on.
It is in this intense heat that the great champions are made.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.