“At no stage did I feel relaxed or feel that I had it won. I had everything to lose and nothing much to gain, because people were saying it was going to be a procession. But I know how good Barry is and he’s produced brilliant snooker during these past two weeks. That’s the hardest anyone has pushed me.”
That’s how Ronnie O’Sullivan described his victory over Barry Hawkins in the final of the World Snooker Championship back in 2013. In a free-flowing, high-scoring encounter, the underdog didn’t let the heavy favourite run away with it. Hawkins produced some of his best ever snooker in the 18-12 defeat, and if he hadn’t come up against the greatest snooker player ever to play the game, playing the best snooker of his career, he may well have got his hands on the world title.
That tournament was the first time Hawkins had got beyond the second round of the World Championship, but he would make deep runs at the Crucible Theatre a habit in the years that followed. Semi-final appearances in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018, with a quarter-final exit sandwiched in between, saw Hawkins become one of the most consistent performers at the sport’s spiritual home in Sheffield, earning a reputation as one of the most difficult players to beat in the tight confines of the Crucible.
It is only now that those halcyon days in Hawkins’ career are beginning to feel like echoes of a past life. A 10-7 loss to World Championship debutant Jackson Page in the first round of this year’s tournament saw him exit the tournament at the first hurdle for the first time since 2010. Despite being the heavy favourite in the snooker World Championship odds to win the match, Hawkins was simply outplayed by his 20-year-old opponent.
With the previous three World Snooker Championships seeing Hawkins bow out in the second round, it feels as though the 42-year-old’s reputation as one of the toughest nuts to crack is beginning to be eroded. In recent years, he has faltered as soon as he has come up against a higher-ranked player, but this time it was a young man ranked 90th in the world who did for his Crucible hopes.
Hawkins’ performance throughout the match was alarmingly poor from a scoring perspective, notching just two breaks of 50 or more. It was only his trademark graft and resilience that saw him make the game close, and at one point it even looked as though his experience could earn him an unlikely victory and spare the blushes of those producing snooker tips. Page stood up to the challenge though, and Hawkins is now left to lick his wounds.
Runs to the final of both the Masters and the Players Championship earlier this year indicate that Hawkins still has plenty left to give on the biggest stage, and he’s the type of player who you can never completely discount in any tournament. But as far as the World Championship is concerned, it looks as though the form which guided Hawkins to the final and all those semi-finals is getting harder and harder for him to find.