Hi again! Usually I would not dedicate a post to a single match, even if it is a final, but we have just witnessed something truly extraordinary in snooker's history. The Northern Irish Jordan Brown, who was previously the world number 81, climbed a staggering tally of 36 positions after defeating Ronnie O'Sullivan in the final of the Welsh Open (he is now world number 45). This was one of the greatest upsets in the recent years of the sport (and the greatest upset I've ever seen). There is a word in (Brazilian) Portuguese for "upset" when used in this context: zebra. The pronunciation is different but the spelling is exactly the same. Anyway, this one needs a better explanation. There is an illegal (and very popular) gambling game in Brazil called Jogo do Bicho, something like "The Animal Game" in English, in which the draw numbers are associated with a set of 25 animals. According to Wikipedia, such use of the word zebra dates back to 1964:
"In 1964, before a football match between Portuguesa (RJ) and Vasco da Gama, the manager of Portuguesa, a much weaker team, was asked if he could defeat Vasco. Gentil Cardoso, the manager, commented that beating Vasco would be like drawing a zebra in Jogo do Bicho. As there is no zebra in the game, his sentence expressed an impossibility. However, Portuguesa did win that game (by 2-1), and since then the term zebra is used in Brazil for upsets."
In fact, given the right proportions, that was a bigger "zebra" than the one at the semi-finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, where Brazil lost to Germany 7-1 playing in my home country. The zebra was not the defeat itself (Germans are good at football) but the numbers on the scoreboard that were embarrassing. Before I proceed to dissect this final match frame by frame, I shall mention a famous quote from Sun Tzu that always come to my mind when I'm watching snooker: "The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself." I know that "enemy" is a strong word, but nonetheless the quote is perfect for the game of snooker.
Both players started the match playing badly. I understand Brown's situation as it was his first final, so it is only natural that a player feels a little bit nervous. No excuses for the world champion, though. Sometimes I wonder if these guys get warmed up before a match. O'Sullivan had a few easy starters, but ended up losing the scrappy first frame. The second frame was not very different. O'Sullivan broke down at 25, giving away a golden opportunity. Brown made a decisive break of 58 and extended his lead to 2-0. The Rocket won the third frame in one visit with a break of 74. Brown had the first chance in the fourth frame and built a 59-point lead before making a decisive break of 78 and right afterwards made the first century of the match in the fifth frame to further extend his lead.
O'Sullivan finally got in the game in the sixth frame with a break of 135, which was followed by another century break (121), as he had been given a decent opportunity. There were no big breaks in the last frame of the session. Brown took advantage of the cue ball going in off, potted a long red and potted a terrific blue to the yellow pocket. O'Sullivan still had the lead (36-31) when he played one the worst shots of the match. He hit a red that was tight to the cushion full in the face, thus bringing it into play and leaving the cue ball in the middle of the table. Brown was very competent in clearing up from there. And then was Brown's turn to give away an opportunity; he caught the blue on the way back to baulk and left O'Sullivan an easy starter. The Rocket broke down at 33, but still won the frame despite missing a very thin cutback to the right corner pocket. That misjudgment gave Brown a chance to take the lead, which he did (44-38), but he lost the safety battle that followed. The highlight of the frame was the shot on the brown with the rest played by O'Sullivan. In the tenth frame, O'Sullivan potted a long red and made a break of 68 to level the match (5-5). In the eleventh frame, it was Brown who gave O'Sullivan another opportunity after missing a very difficult plant to the left middle pocket. O'Sullivan took the lead for the first time in the match with a break of 61.
Playing well as he was, Jordan Brown promptly fought back in the twelfth frame with a break of 46, which proved to be decisive. The highlight of the frame was the shot on a red to the left middle pocket played by Brown to put him 55 ahead with 59 on. The match was tied again (6-6). Brown broke down at 25 in the thirteenth frame giving away another opportunity to the world champion who amazingly, somehow, missed a black short of pace. It turned out to be a scrappy frame in which O'Sullivan started to show signs of frustration. Brown had taken the lead again (7-6) and O'Sullivan managed to level the match for a second time with a break of 58. Fifteenth frame. It was Brown's turn to make a decisive break of 56 by capitalizing on O'Sullivan's miss on an easy pink. O'Sullivan replied with his third century break (119) in the match to force a decider. It was a tough break to make. In order to keep the break going, O'Sullivan played two of the most difficult pots of the entire tournament: a long-distance blue off its spot (the black was unavailable) and a very difficult red to the right corner pocket.
It all came down to a decider. O'Sullivan fluked a red but could not land on a color. The cue ball was close to the pack in such a way there was no color available. The key moment here is that the obvious shot choice was a safety. O'Sullivan could have played for a baulk color, thus leaving the cue ball tight to the cushion, but he chose to take a very tricky blue instead. I fail to see the reason for taking such a great risk. Why not being patient? Since the match had gone all the way to a deciding frame, why would a world-class player be rushing? Maybe he felt disgusted with the fluke, who knows? In any case, he provided his opponent an opportunity to defeat him. Jordan Brown took advantage of the situation and scored a frame winning break of 74, similar to the ones he had been making during the match. Very well played indeed. He had to go into the pack a few times and still kept the breaking going. I personally loved that red to the middle pocket which prevented the break from ending at 40.
There are lies; there are lousy lies; and there is statistics. Despite having outscored (893 points against Brown's 815), "outpotted" (265 against Brown's 229) and made more century breaks (3 to 1), the world champion lost his third final in a row. Actually, it is the fifth final of a Home Nations Series event he has lost since having beat Kyren Wilson 9-2 at the final of the English Open back in 2017. He has lost to Judd Trump (three times), Mark Selby and now Jordan Brown. The boldness and the ability of the underdog seemed to have sparked confidence among all players on the circuit and surely his historical win will live long in the memory. In addition, he now joins the small group of players who have a perfect record against the Rocket: Aaron Hill and Alexander Ursenbacher. The Northern Irishman has also booked his place in the Champion of Champions later this year. Truly remarkable!
The zebra is an ominous sign, but it appears that the world champion has come back even more determined. He has shown resilience in defeating Ding Junhui 6-5 at the Cazoo Players Championship. The other players that survived the first round are Barry Hawkins, Stuart Bingham, Jack Lisowski, Neil Roberson (in style with 4 centuries) and Kyren Wilson. The world number one Judd Trump is out after losing to Stuart Bingham in a decider. Jordan Brown will play John Higgins in his first match and Mark Selby will play Mark Williams. We might yet see a few zebras. And finally, the biggest tournament of them all is coming. Judging by the high standard throughout the season, retaining the World Title is going to be a herculean challenge for the world champion because at this point, and unlike the last time, all the top players look sharp and are used to playing in these weird conditions.
Featured image credit: wst.tv