Ronnie O’Sullivan shrugged off an extraordinary act of self-sabotage by his opponent Hossein Vafaei to deliver a potential knockout blow in the opening session of their so-called World Snooker Championship grudge match.
O’Sullivan racked up his 200th Crucible century as part of a ruthless response to Vafaei’s pre-match barbs, while the Iranian did himself no favors by crushing the balls of his first interruption in an ill-judged reaction to the free kick. of perceived respect shown to him by O’Sullivan taking the same shot in their last meeting two years ago.
Vafaei’s outburst prompted O’Sullivan to clean up with a 78 break and the defending champion built a 6-2 overnight lead in their second-round clash, giving him a chance to clinch victory with a session to spare when they resume on Saturday afternoon.
The Iranian was accused of “stupidity” and “disrespecting the sport” by a shocked Steve Davis in the BBC studio, while another former world champion, Shaun Murphy, called Vafaei’s antics “a disgrace” and ” completely self-inflicted.”
Vafaei had launched an extraordinary verbal attack on O’Sullivan in the wake of his first round win over Ding Junhui last Sunday, alluding to an incident in his 2021 German Masters qualifying match.
The Iranian accused O’Sullivan of “disrespect” for opening the balls on his break shot in the final frame of that match, which Vafaei won 5-0. Vafaei added: “He (O’Sullivan) is such a nice person when he’s asleep.”
As snooker grudge matches go, it wasn’t exactly on the level of Cliff Thorburn beating Alex Higgins in a back room at the 1983 Irish Open, nor was volatile Aussie Quinten Hann offering his opponent Andy Hicks up for a fight. post painting in 2004.
But, in front of a raucous Crucible crowd, MC Rob Walker did his best to kick off the clash as a heavyweight bout by announcing O’Sullivan, boxing-style, as the “reigning and defending champion of the world.” .
Vafaei offered a wry smile that his opponent did not return when they briefly touched gloves, and the steel-faced O’Sullivan proceeded to ruthlessly capitalize on a mistake by the Iranian to rack up a break of 78 and win the first frame.
It should have been clear to Vafaei from comments made by O’Sullivan in an interview with Eurosport on the eve of their match that the seven-time champion was not concerned by his provocative remarks.
“I have no revenge on me,” O’Sullivan had said. “I don’t get into those battles because it’s not worth it. You just have to stay in your own lane and focus on what you have to do.”
The news seemed to have not reached Vafaei, who dished out what he may have perceived as a taste of his own medicine to O’Sullivan by sending the balls randomly around the table from their initial break.
O’Sullivan duly swept away the simplest of chances to take a 2-0 lead with another break of 78, prompting a puzzled Davis to insist: “That’s just stupid, or you just don’t care about being a world champion.
“You’re basically giving your opponent an easy chance. For me it’s a nasty taste in my mouth from the game, and it tasted delicious to start with.
“It’s not good to see. I don’t think it’s necessarily disrespectful to Ronnie, but maybe it’s considered disrespectful to the game of pool and the people who come to watch and want to see a great game.
“It’s not nice, it’s not good. It is not a personal game, snooker, your problem is the table and the balls, not your opponent”.
To Davis’ amazement, Vafaei rallied to win frame three, compiling a break of 64 on the back of an excellent long red that ultimately turned out to be the frame winner and cut the deficit.
“I don’t understand how you can crush balls at the World Championship and then play great in the next frame,” Davis added.
“What kind of brain can do that? I don’t know where it came from, but damn, to earn that mark after embarrassing yourself, how the hell can you focus after that?
O’Sullivan, showing no obvious ill effects from the apparent virus that had hampered him during a slow first-round win over Pang Junxu, made breaks of 69 and 51 to win the fourth frame and gallop into the mid-round interval. session 3-1 ahead.
Vafaei wasted a number of good chances to seize frame five, who went the way of O’Sullivan after a long safety exchange, and went 5-1 up after carving out his historic century from inauspicious starts.
O’Sullivan extended his lead to 6-1, but Vafaei ended a tumultuous session on a high when he capitalized on a missed rose from O’Sullivan with a gutsy 58 clearance to stop some of the damage.