There were several touching moments at the conclusion of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s victory over Judd Trump in the final of the World Snooker Championship on Monday. Chief among them was that Sorcerer-embraces-apprentice hug when the result was confirmed, and the whispered but as yet unknown exchange between the two players in each other’s ears. We were all swept away in that moment, but as intriguing as what might have been said there is O’Sullivan’s on the record statement to Hazel Irvine in the post-match interview that followed. "As far as I’m concerned," he said, "this fella, he’s already an all-time great, the way he plays the game."
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We had to wait a little while for Judd. After his breakout year of 2011, where he won the China Open, took John Higgins to the brink in the final at the Crucible and then picked up the UK Championship, all in extrovert style, it seemed like the game had found a new catalyst. There is a similar age gap from Alex Higgins to Jimmy White, from White to O’Sullivan, and from O’Sullivan to Trump; at 22-years old, and with O’Sullivan periodically hinting that he might walk away from the game, it looked like Trump was braced to carry the game for the next generation.
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Cashing in that prodigious gift took some time. Trump reached another UK final and won a few ranking events, but it wasn’t until 2019 that he finally harnessed his potential. At the Masters that January he blasted through Kyren Wilson, Mark Selby, Neil Robertson and O’Sullivan to win at Alexandra Palace; three months later he won his maiden world title, eviscerating John Higgins with the most devastating performance we’ve ever seen in a Crucible final. It launched a reign of terror on the World Snooker Tour, and in the last four seasons Trump has bagged 15 ranking event victories. In his career he’s recorded 856 century breaks, second only to O’Sullivan.
And yet for all the numbers, all the lavish praise and all the retweeted clips of outrageous pots and round-the-angles positional shots, there are a few pages missing in Trump’s story, a few chapters that still need to be padded out. When he won the world title in 2019 to add to his Masters and UK Championship gongs, he completed the Triple Crown. The symbol is sewn into his waistcoat and Trump is one of only 11 players to achieve this, only eight of which are still active. That’s rarefied air indeed, and greatness in its own right. On that plateau however there are levels within levels, and it’s from that vantage point that the next few years of Trump’s career should be fascinating.
Since that demolition of Higgins three years ago, Trump hasn’t been able to add another Triple Crown title to his collection. O’Sullivan kept him at arm's length on Monday, while he missed a crucial pink to lose the UK Championship in a decider to Robertson in 2020. The pandemic has intervened too, when he had to withdraw from the Masters in 2021 after coming down with the coronavirus. The fact remains however that in the last three seasons it’s been a swing and a miss at the majors despite scooping up pretty much everything else in sight at least once.
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It's Triple Crowns by which ye are judged; just ask O’Sullivan, as there were still people saying that Hendry was his superior up until two days ago. As things stand, among the active, top-16 level players Trump’s one of each is on a par with Shaun Murphy; Robertson has one world title, but multiple UK and Masters crowns. Beyond that there’s a moat before you get to Mark Williams, Mark Selby, Higgins and O’Sullivan, the multiple winners of everything. O’Sullivan praised Trump’s dynamic snooker on Monday, but Trump’s going to have to pedal incredibly hard to catch not just his contemporaries but also make up ground on Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis.
Hendry has just received an invitational tour card for the next two years and is a presence on the tour that reminds every other player just how high the bar is. He changed the game forever and spawned the generation that finished him. Trump has had to deal not only with the back end of that era of players to win his titles, but also his peers and the new generation coming fast behind him. As well as parity with Murphy in the set of Triple Crowns he’s also on that rung with Terry Griffiths. It would be laced with symbolism if he could pass Alex Higgins, who is next in view with two world titles and five overall. Even from there, it’s still a daunting look up to the top.
In this regard he has time as his ally. The Class of 92 are all now well ensconced in their mid-forties and, despite some admittedly compelling evidence to the contrary, simply cannot go on forever. Robertson has tipped 40 as well, and it’s in the post for Selby and Murphy. This summer Trump will turn 33, and while it’s tempting to think that the physical and mental stamina demanded by the high-octane modern game over the long haul might favour sprightly twenty-somethings, the trend is that the big prizes almost always find their way into the hands of the seasoned. Trump is leading the next generation, in every sense. In talent, temperament and achievement he’s miles ahead of Yan Bingtao and Zhao Xintong, who have won Triple Crown events, and Kyren Wilson, Luca Brecel and Jack Lisowski, who have yet to register one.
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In Sheffield in the last few weeks, Trump was often resilient rather than brilliant. But therein lies the key to winning at the Crucible; it’s as much about your A game as your B game, and how the latter holds it together while you’re scrambling around trying to locate the former. It’s the ability to nick frames when you have no right to, split sessions where you’ve been splatted and somehow stay in the game until you can find your own. The naughty snooker gets the social media snippets but Trump has developed into a ferocious competitor in the last four seasons, a will that dragged him past Anthony McGill, Stuart Bingham and Mark Williams even though he’s been under par by his own lofty standards this season.
The one session he’ll look back on with regret is the Saturday evening of the final. Drained from his brinksmanship with Williams a day earlier, a flat performance saw Trump’s long game and tight safety play desert him temporarily. Even then, he rallied to take the argument long into Sunday evening. "We all knew that he wasn’t playing his best," O’Sullivan said afterwards. "But that’s what a champion does. They don’t play to their best, they get to the final and they still nearly win it."
Trump will be back near his best soon, of that there seems little doubt. He might not hit the exalted level of 2019 again, but there’s no reason to think he’d have to in order to cement his legacy with more Triple Crown titles. O’Sullivan has never been as unplayable as he was circa 2004-05 and look what he’s achieved since then. If there is a sea change in snooker’s hierarchy on the way, no one is better placed than Trump to take the game over. "He’s going to be winning this (the world title) a few times," O’Sullivan continued. "The other guys better get their act together." Given the source, that’s a warning worth heeding.
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