Ronnie O’Sullivan shrugged off an extraordinary act of self-sabotage by opponent Hossein Vafaei to deliver a potential knockout punch in the opening session of their so-called grudge match at the World Snooker Championships.
O’Sullivan collected his 200th Crucible century as part of a ruthless return on Vafaei’s foreplay spikes, while the Iranian did himself no favors by smashing balls from his first break-off in a rash response to perceived disrespect him from O’ Sullivan, who took the same shot when they last met two years ago.
Vafaei’s bombshell sent O’Sullivan catching up with a 78 break and the defending champion earned a 6-2 overnight advantage in the second round, giving him an opportunity to wrap up the win with a session remaining at They Will Am continued Saturday afternoon.
The Iranian was accused of “stupidity” and “disrespect for sport” by a shocked Steve Davis in the BBC studios, while another former world champion, Shaun Murphy, called Vafaei’s antics “an embarrassment” and “entirely self-inflicted”.
Vafaei had launched an extraordinary verbal attack on O’Sullivan following his first-round win over Ding Junhui last Sunday, alluding to an incident in their German Masters qualifier in 2021.
The Iranian accused O’Sullivan of “disrespect” for smashing balls from his break-off shot in the final frame of that game, which Vafaei won 5-0. Vafaei added, “He (O’Sullivan) is such a nice person when he’s asleep.”
As far as snooker grudge matches go, it wasn’t exactly on the level of Cliff Thorburn berating Alex Higgins in a back room at the 1983 Irish Open, or fickle Australian Quinten Hann giving his opponent Andy Hicks a post-frame bout in 2004 offered.
But in front of a raucous Crucible crowd, MC Rob Walker did his best to make the clash feel like a heavyweight slugfest, boxing-style to announce O’Sullivan as the “reigning, defending world champion.”
Vafaei flashed a lopsided smile that wasn’t returned by his opponent as they briefly touched the gloves, and a steely O’Sullivan ruthlessly capitalized on a mistake from the Iranian to earn a break from 78 and win the first frame.
Vafaei should have been clear from O’Sullivan’s comments in an interview with Eurosport on the eve of their game that the seven-time champion was unperturbed by his provocative remarks.
“I have no vengeance in me,” O’Sullivan had said. “I don’t get involved in these fights because it’s not worth it. You just have to stay in your own lane and focus on what you have to do.”
Unknown to Vafaei, who dished to O’Sullivan what he may have felt as a taste of his own medicine, sending balls wildly around the table from his opening demolition.
O’Sullivan earned the easiest chance to take a 2-0 lead with another break from 78, leading a stunned Davis to insist, “This is stupid or you just don’t care about being world champion .
“You’re basically giving your opponent an easy chance. For me, it’s an unpleasant taste in my mouth for the match, and it was a delicious taste to begin with.
“It’s not good to see. I don’t think it’s necessarily disrespectful to Ronnie, but it might be seen as disrespectful to the game of snooker and the people who come over to watch and want to see a great game.
“It’s not nice, it’s not good. It’s not a personal game, snooker, your problem is the table and the balls, not your opponent.”
To Davis’ astonishment, Vafaei pulled himself together to win frame three, compiling a break of 64 on the back of an excellent long red, which ultimately emerged as a frame winner and reduced the deficit.
“I don’t understand how you can smash balls in the World Cup and then play great in the next frame,” Davis added.
“What kind of brain can do that? I don’t know where it’s coming from, but the hell to win that frame after embarrassing yourself – how on earth can you focus after that?”
O’Sullivan, showing no apparent ill effects from the apparent virus that had hampered him during a sluggish first-round win over Pang Junxu, made breaks of 69 and 51 to win the fourth frame and into the break midway to canter 3-1 ahead of the session.
Vafaei spurned a number of good chances to win frame five, which benefited O’Sullivan after a long safety change, and he went 5-1 up after carving his historic century from promising starts.
O’Sullivan extended his lead to 6-1, but Vafaei ended a turbulent session on a high when he capitalized on a missed O’Sullivan pink with a bold 58 margin to stop some of the damage.