Judd Trump's dream of being the first maiden winner to retain the World Championship could be a career-defining piece of snooker history, writes Desmond Kane.
"I look up to the sky. And now the world is mine. I've known it all my life. I made it, I made it.”
For the best part of the past decade, Judd Trump, the very best of a delightfully brimming Bristol cream, has been bounding into various outposts across the globe to the lyrics of Kevin Rudolf's club banger I Made It.
When he officially did make it as a made man by becoming snooker’s world champion for the first time last May, Rudolf's rap number had been replaced by Dutch DJ Martin Garrix's High On Life as Trump's walk on tune of choice.
An absorbing anthem when you are giving it large under Ushuaia’s sultry lights in Ibiza, but arguably not so apt upon entering the potting promised landed under the Crucible Theatre's heavenly light bulbs.
Which ironically suggests that time spent at the table is a bit like the wider world when you are making symbolic song choices: you can control so much in life, but you are always relying on a little bit of luck to get the right split when you plunge into the pack. In the pursuit of happiness, timing remains everything on the old green baize and off it.
Amid the furnace of rolling balls and rolling the dice, especially amid a summer World Championship delayed and damaged like much of sport by a global health pandemic, there is seemingly always a battle against the wider narrative as much as yourself. For Trump, a little slice of snooker folklore could soon be his exclusive property, an elusive ornament not afforded to any other man since the Steel City of Sheffield first steeled itself to host the World Championship in 1977.
If he emerges victorious for the second successive year, Trump will have lifted the Crucible Curse that has hung over various potting protagonists like the Sword of Damocles, or perhaps the cue stick of Tony Knowles, for the past 43 years and counting.
It is a bit like British tennis and its 77-year wait for a men’s winner of Wimbledon until Andy Murray emulated Fred Perry in 2013. One year it will happen, you just aren't sure if the end of days will arrive before the hex, rather than the Hexagon, is finally lifted.
It sounds like something out of Harry Potter's Cruciatus Curse, but has nothing to do with pot luck or the horse racing tips of John Parrott, the 1991 world champion and another victim of the odd phenomenon. Even ‘The Wizard of Wishaw’ has been unable to escape the voodoo beyond the infamous disappearing act of Alex Higgins’ legendary large vodkas and a dash aided by a Crucible ice bucket back in the day.
John Higgins was responsible for dashing the defending champion Ken Doherty’s brave bid when he overcame ‘The Darlin’ of Dublin’ 18-12 in the 1998 final – and another 22 years have rolled relentlessly by.
Higgins was himself gazumped 17-10 by Mark Williams in the semi-finals in 1999 as the curse struck him down with as much venom as an Alexandra Palace wasp.
Only Doherty and Bradford’s swashbuckling Joe Johnson have returned to the final a year after lifting the old trophy for the first time. Johnson was a 150-1 outsider when he stuffed Steve Davis 18-12 in 1986, but ‘The Nugget’ was not ready to be ambushed a second time as he prevailed 18-14 in 1987.
Davis was on the receiving end of one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history after lifting his first world title in 1981 with an 18-12 win over Doug Mountjoy. He came across Bolton’s Knowles, a firm housewives’ favourite, in the first round in 1982 and was promptly roundhoused 10-1.
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The ghosts of champions past haunt maiden winners at the old joint with more focus than Cliff Thorburn stalking a cigarette prior to compiling the first 147 at the venue in 1983.
Stephen Hendry lost 13-11 to Steve James in the quarter-finals in 1991, Mark Williams was eclipsed 13-12 by Joe 'The Outlaw’ Swail in the last 16 in 2001 and Ronnie O’Sullivan was bullied into submission by Hendry’s scoring power of five centuries and eight breaks over 50 in a grudge match in the 2002 semi-finals.
Mark Selby, a three-times champion, lost 13-9 to Anthony McGill in the second round in 2015 a year after denying O’Sullivan a sixth title 18-14 in 2014. The list is long and seemingly endless.
All the true prospectors of the green baize have returned a year later to defend the trophy and have been struck down by fate in the longing for unique sporting gold.
Will the curse of the black ball see the champ swallowed up by Davy Jones’ locker or Davy Gilbert’s dressing room this time? Do such stats truly matter? Too many classy players have come up short over such a long period of time to render it a meaningless quirk. Form, pressure and expectation levels tend to take hold with greater strain than an ill-fitting bow tie rather than a curse.
It could be argued that none of the previous have-a-go heroes were better equipped to successfully defend the trophy than Trump, snooker’s greatest undisputed world number one since Hendry used to wash up at the venue in the 1990s with room for the trophy already earmarked in his motor.
His 18-9 filleting of John Higgins in the final last year was something to behold as he ran in a record seven centuries and 15 breaks over 50 in a final that became as much a procession as an exhibition of snooker sovereignty. It was the best standard we have witnessed at the annual cueball conference.
“I think I can play better,” he told me after last year’s final. “Hopefully I can take the game to standards that haven’t been seen before. I’m going to put in the work, go back and practice even harder to produce a new standard that no one has seen before.”
Trump has made good on his promise by casting a spell over the sport in carrying off an unprecedented six ranking events at the International Championship, World Open, Northern Ireland Open, German Masters, Players Championship and Gibraltar Open before coronavirus halted play.
As a rightful 5/2 favourite with £879,600 officially banked already this season, tournament sponsors Betfred will not be overly displeased if this snooker sorcerer comes up short.
As is tradition, the defending champion begins his campaign against Tom Ford at 10am on Friday morning before they play to a finish in the evening. He has won 10 out of 14 meetings with his fellow Englishman, but it should also be noted that he lost 10-3 to Ford a decade ago in a qualifier for the main Crucible draw.
How times have changed. At full throttle, his game is pristine, full of cavalier potting possibilities and studied safety solutions. His level of natural ability and adventure has rarely been witnessed in the modern era. Certainly not since O’Sullivan became UK champion at the age of 17 in 1993.
Therein lies the importance of Trump’s attempt for a career-defining second world title at the age of 30. It is a time limited, one-off offer and he only gets one shot at it, but the pieces of a career tapestry in any sport are forged by such timeless trivia.
O’Sullivan continues to be recalled as the youngest winner of the UK Championship. His world record 147 in five minutes and eight minutes in 1997 is timelessly celebrated. Trump could become the first original champion to win back-to-back titles which would instantly separate him from the rest in the history of the game and ensuing debate of who is deemed worthy of all-time greatness.
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The £500,000 first prize would go a long way to putting down a lasting deposit on whatever legacy he wishes to leave in the sport. If he has notions of taking the game to a new level, sometimes the pieces of the puzzle, indeed life’s endless challenges, do not begin and end in a natural order. It is how you make sense of the enfolding chaos that is key.
Like the longing to clear the table at one visit, solving the matrix more often than not separates the good from the great in snooker as regularly as they split the balls.
Trump has already enjoyed the days of his life, but one of the final missing pieces of the jigsaw is there for the taking this year and this year only. For Trump, immortality is within potting distance.