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Archives for April 2012

The torture chamber hidden within World Snooker's Crucible

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Ben Dirs | 07:45 UK time, Sunday, 29 April 2012

Exit the Crucible stage left, turn right past the players’ dressing rooms, funnel down the narrow corridor and you will eventually reach the media centre in the bowels of the building. There, behind a partition at the back of the room, is snooker’s torture chamber: where beaten men come to bare their souls.

In eight days of this year’s World Championship so far, 20 losing players have ploughed this lonely furrow: wounded, grey, shrunken - and that’s before the Press men have started picking at their still weeping sores.

Mark Allen blamed his inadequacies on his opponent’s supposed cheating; Ding Junhui was reduced to anguished, barely audible mutters of “rubbish”; Peter Ebdon broke down in tears; Graeme Dott, looking smaller than ever after a 10-1 hiding, looked as if his life-force had been chewed away from the inside.

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Hendry still loves winning

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Ben Dirs | 16:56 UK time, Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Crucible

I knew Stephen Hendry loved winning. We all knew Stephen Hendry loved winning - seven world titles told us that. But it is his brutal frankness about his love of winning, more than the winning itself, that takes the breath away.

Try to recall all those classic Crucible 147s: Bill Werbeniuk peeking round the partition as his mate Cliff Thorburn claws his way to the first maximum at the venue; Mick Price, all child-like and wide-eyed with wonder as Ronnie O'Sullivan slings his chalk into the crowd; and Stuart Bingham only last week, genuinely delighted to see Hendry complete the 11th of his career. But if anyone did that to Hendry, he readily admits he'd be burning up inside.

"No-one's ever made one against me, I would hate it - I wouldn't be genuinely happy for them," says the Scot, playing in his 27th straight World Championship.

"It's not nice when the shoe's on the other foot. It's nice when you're beating an opponent and you're kicking him when he's down. That's what sport is all about, the only reason for playing."

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Snooker boss Hearn flexes his cane

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Ben Dirs | 07:30 UK time, Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Think of Barry Hearn as a schoolteacher – Mr Hearn, if you will. In one class, he has his darts boys: willing to learn, always open to new ideas, you might call them Mr Hearn’s swots. In the other class, he has his snooker boys: every bit as bright as the other lot, but a bit of a pain in the Crucibles.

And so, on day three of the World Championship in Sheffield, Mr Hearn was forced to read his snooker boys the riot act. First, he had one of his star pupils – two-time winner Mark Williams – bad-mouthing his hosts; second, he had the naughtiest boy in class – Northern Ireland’s Mark Allen – accusing one of the new kids of cheating, before suggesting some of his mates were at it as well.

While Hearn has too much front about him to ever look hurt, some of his language betrayed his true feelings.

“I want everyone to understand it is a very good time to be a snooker player,” said Hearn. “Not a good time to be an idiot."

“Everything is going our way. We’re doing everything we can to make this game great again and then the ground gets taken from under us. Prize money has more than doubled in two years [Hearn took over as chairman of World Snooker in 2010] and that comes at a price, and that price is professionalism.”

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Beware the vegan

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Ben Dirs | 15:23 UK time, Sunday, 22 April 2012

"Whoever's been giving me these draws lately," says Peter Ebdon, "I'm definitely taking them off my Christmas card list." Whoever it is will likely be two cards light next Christmas, because for Ronnie O'Sullivan, a first-round encounter with Ebdon at the Crucible is pretty much the draw from hell.

Back in 2005, O'Sullivan was left clawing at his face as Ebdon, stalking the table like a general poring over his battle maps, took five minutes to compile a break of 12. O'Sullivan, who had been 8-2 up, ended up losing that quarter-final 13-11 before announcing, not for the last time, his intention to take a sabbatical from snooker. You might say he had been well and truly Ebdonated.

In the lead-up to their fourth Crucible encounter (Ebdon leads 2-1), O'Sullivan appeared to still be under Ebdon's spell. "I can run a mile in five minutes, and my fastest 147 break was only 20 seconds longer," said the three-time world champion last week. "I am an instinctive player, rather than a methodical one. I see the shot quickly, and it can be hard seeing your opponent not doing it."

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Ronnie O'Sullivan and sport's game-changing moments

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Ben Dirs | 08:30 UK time, Friday, 20 April 2012

Sports usually change imperceptibly, nudging forwards in increments, so that it is only with the benefit of hindsight - footage of muddy old pitches, of funky old golf swings, of scrum-halves 10st when wet - that you realise exactly how far a sport has come. Or, in the case of heavyweight boxing, regressed.

Then you get those game-changing moments when a sportsperson is able to shunt their sport forwards so that you can actually see the foundations move. Moments so jaw-dropping, they become crystalised in the mind.

Snooker's Ronnie O'Sullivan, playing in his 20th World Championship from next week, was one such game-changer, a man who altered the perception of the way his sport could be played: fast, loose, rakish. And brutally effective.

Alex Higgins was fast, loose and rakish, but he was a maverick rather than a game-changer. Alex Higgins made seven century breaks in 14 Crucible appearances. The more prosaic Tony Meo made eight in 11. O'Sullivan has made 106 in 19.

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Casey's lucky break?

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Ben Dirs | 23:14 UK time, Tuesday, 3 April 2012

I've always wanted to give a professional golfer a bit of advice. So I would like to thank Paul Casey, who was busy "ripping his right arm out of its socket" on a mountain in Colorado last Christmas, for providing me with the opportunity.

"Maybe you should think about jacking in the snowboarding?" I suggested.

"I need to stop it, don't I?" said Casey, who is set for his eighth Masters appearance on Thursday. But I'm not entirely convinced my suggestion hit home. "I probably will - at least maybe until next year."

Blase? Maybe. But when you've had your entire previous season blighted by something as obscure and absurd-sounding as 'turf toe', you're liable to lean towards the fatalistic.

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Mellow Mahan in the hunt

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Ben Dirs | 11:14 UK time, Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The plan was to speak to Hunter Mahan about American claimants to Tiger's throne, now Tiger had been usurped. Or abdicated, whichever way you look at it. Then Tiger won at Bay Hill and looked regal again. Before Mahan won in Houston to become the top-ranked American. So we were left with an outcast king and a pretender. Which usually means war.

Only Mahan, who has finally learned to relax on the golf course, is not really war-like by nature. At least not as we know it. Plus, Mahan and Woods share the same kingmaker, the Canadian golf coach Sean Foley, who also has the ear of England's Justin Rose. As Rose said when asked who would win this week's Masters: "Sean Foley is the favourite."

Between them, Mahan, Woods and Rose have won four of the last six tournaments on the PGA Tour, with Mahan, newly-installed as the world number four, landing two of them, including the Houston Open on Sunday. That's your each-way bets sorted.

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Sugar Ray's greatest comeback

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Ben Dirs | 08:16 UK time, Monday, 2 April 2012

Sugar Ray Leonard boxing special, BBC Radio 5 live, Tuesday 3 April, 1930-2045 BST

When I was a kid, my brother would dig out the old, tan boxing gloves from the cupboard under the stairs and we'd go mano-a-mano in the living room: me pretending to be Sugar Ray Leonard - the bolo punches, the Ali shuffle - my brother, his footwork somewhat encumbered by the fact he was fighting on his knees, playing the part of Marvin Hagler.

To me and many kids like me, Sugar Ray was perfection: pretty as a picture, mercury slick, hard as nails. But the truth was rather different. By Leonard's own admission, he was "out of control": a serial adulterer, a lush and in thrall to the white stuff. And we're not talking about sugar.

Leonard's story is a lesson in the destructive nature of fame. Of the fears and anxieties it breeds. Of the brittleness of our heroes. Of the grief behind those dazzling white teeth. Sugar Ray was never perfect, just like you or me.

"I came from a very poor background and all of a sudden I had global fame and fortune," says Leonard, speaking to BBC Sport on the 25th anniversary of his miraculous defeat of Hagler.

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