The 2021 Betfred World Championship has provided light at the end of the tunnel for millions of fans watching from home and thousands of spectators who finally witnessed live sport in the flesh following months upon months of lockdown measures.
On the table there were fireworks, fightbacks, shocks and stunning snooker. Here is the story of how one of sport’s pioneering spectator events since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic unfolded.
A limited audience welcomed defending champion and six-time Crucible king Ronnie O’Sullivan on the opening morning. He locked horns with debutant Mark Joyce, who clinched a place at the Theatre of Dreams after 15 years as a professional.
The Rocket launched his bid for a record equalling seventh World Championship title with a comfortable 10-4 defeat of Joyce. Afterwards O’Sullivan admitted the return of crowds had motivated him during the first round win.
“It was a great to have a crowd,” said O’Sullivan. “It’s fantastic for the fans to be back watching snooker, I could feel them there. Having a crowd makes me want to find something, it’s my natural instinct. It spurs me on to play better.”
The only match of the round to go to a decider saw 2015 World Champion Stuart Bingham edge out Asian number one Ding Junhui 10-9.
Basildon’s Bingham had to qualify this year for the first time since 2011, after dropping out of the world’s top 16. He defeated Luca Brecel on Judgement Day to reach the Crucible.
Bingham and Ding had an agonising three hour wait after being pulled off at 9-9. When play resumed Ding had the first chance, but broke down on 45. Bingham stepped up and fired in a stunning run of 70 to claim victory.
Scotland’s Anthony McGill hit the headlines in the last 16, ending O’Sullivan’s reign as World Champion in an all-time classic encounter.
McGill is no stranger to success on the sport’s biggest stage. He inflicted the Crucible curse on Mark Selby in his debut year in 2015 and reached the semis last year. The Glaswegian fell one frame short of the final after losing an epic clash with Kyren Wilson 17-16.
O’Sullivan led 4-1, before McGill reeled off seven frames on the bounce to go 8-4 up. This see-saw showdown was then turned on its head again, after O’Sullivan claimed six in a row from 10-5 down to lead 11-10.
They traded frames and the tie went to a dramatic decider. O’Sullivan had looked set to keep his hopes of a seventh title alive, but broke down on 42. McGill showed his considerable steel inside the heat of Sheffield’s Crucible, making 85 to win 13-12.
McGill said: “I was calm in the last frame, I had it in my mind that it wasn’t the last frame and we were going to play all night. I wanted to play all night, it was just so good! It only hit me when I potted the last red that we were in a decider. Ronnie said to me at the end that I had played well and deserved it. The semi-final from last year didn’t cross my mind at all – that’s gone.”
Mark Williams was victorious in a repeat of his 2018 world final against four-time World Champion John Higgins.
On that occasion Welshman Williams secured his third world title after a nerve-shredding 18-16 triumph.
Once again Williams got the better of his fellow ‘Class of 92’ member, easing to a 13-7 win. The victory set up what appeared to be a hard to call quarter-final with fellow three-time World Champion Selby.
Shaun Murphy came to the Crucible off the back of a difficult season in which he had only mustered one ranking semi-final appearance and one run to the quarter-finals. However, he turned on the style to down world number one Judd Trump in a thrilling clash.
In contrast with his opponent’s campaign, Trump arrived in Sheffield having enjoyed a red hot season, which saw him amass five ranking titles.
Murphy, who was World Champion in 2005, had only won two matches in his previous five visits to the Crucible. However, he doubled that tally with wins over Mark Davis and Yan Bingtao in the opening two rounds.
The Magician charged into a 10-6 lead after the first two sessions, before Trump reeled him in to draw level at 11-11.
Trump had the first opportunity to move a frame from victory, but missed a black and allowed Murphy to step up and fire in a break of 70 to regain the lead. Requiring just one more, he then made 62 in the following frame and eventually got over the line for a famous win.
Murphy said: “It was epic, it was a really high quality match. I’m just thrilled to take the chances in the last two frames having taken an onslaught before that.”
Following his heroics in the previous round, McGill was on the wrong end of a deciding frame defeat, with Bingham edging out the Scot by a 13-12 scoreline.
The highly anticipated meeting between Selby and Williams turned out to be a one-sided affair. Selby was at his imperious best in storming to a landslide 13-3 victory, while Kyren Wilson knocked out the highly fancied Neil Robertson 13-8.
History was made in the semis, with the identity of both finalists being revealed in the Saturday evening session for the first time ever.
A gruelling battle between Selby and Bingham included two frames which were re-racked twice and another which lasted 63 minutes, as they slogged it out for a place in snooker’s biggest match. The tie was meant to conclude on Saturday afternoon, but with the evening session set to start, play was halted with Selby leading 16-15.
At that point Wilson and Murphy took to centre stage, locked level at 12-12. It was Murphy who carried the momentum from the morning, having battled back from 10-4 down to restore parity.
Murphy produced a near faultless display, composing breaks of 78, 91, 117, 77 and 58 in consecutive frames to sweep to five on the bounce in the session and secure a 17-12 victory. That sealed a fourth world final appearance.
“Apart from winning the tournament, this is the best feeling you get in snooker,” said Murphy. “Will I sleep tonight? I’m not sure. My game is in really good shape.”
When Selby and Bingham got back underway, they had another fiercely contested frame. It came down to a safety battle on the green, where Selby eventually gained the upper hand. After slotting in the green and the brown and getting perfectly on a match brown blue, he clenched his fists and celebrated to the crowd. The Leicester cueman then deposited blue and pink to book his place in the final.
Selby said: “It was such a tough game, Stuart is a great player. It’s strange to think he came here as a qualifier because when he’s like that he is definitely a top eight player. I was just hanging on to his coat tails all the way through and then managed to turn it around at the end.”
The stage was set for a clash of styles in snooker’s showpiece occasion, which is being played out in front of the first indoor sporting capacity crowd in over a year. The ultimate competitor vs the ultimate showman. The Jester taking on the Magician, with the Betfred World Championship trophy and a top prize of £500,000 on the line.
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