When Neil Robertson is beginning the defence of his Masters title against Ding Junhui at London's Alexandra Palace on Sunday afternoon, Ronnie O'Sullivan may well be downing tools for the day.
O'Sullivan's choice of weapon this week is likelier to be a pitchfork than a snooker cue after news emerged that he was finding solace away from the stresses of professional sport by engaging in voluntary work as a farm labourer.
O'Sullivan will miss the Masters, an event carrying a new sponsor in Betfair and an increased first prize of £175,000, for the first time in two decades after announcing in November that he was opting out of the sport for the rest of the season citing personal reasons amid his well-publicised problems battling depression away from the game.
O'Sullivan usurped Melbournian Robertson in the quarter-finals on his way to winning a fourth world title at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre in May, but Australia's 2010 world champion takes no pleasure from the Englishman's continued absence from the game.
Robertson spoke to Eurosport about snooker without O'Sullivan and a smattering of the other main topics governing the game's landscape ahead of the defence of the title he claimed last year with a 10-6 win over Shaun Murphy in the final.
Your first match at the Betfair Masters is against Ding Junhui on Sunday. A year ago you were champion. It seems such a short time ago.
Neil Robertson: It is funny how the Masters can throw up really good matches to start the tournament off. It should be a highlight of the first round matches. We are two overseas players and between us have won the world, UK and Masters. It doesn't get much tougher than Ding, but when you are playing in the Masters you always expect a world class opponent because of the elite nature of the event.
The opening match on the Sunday traditionally attracts a large crowd.
NR: I think there will be a large crowd in for it. It should make for a great atmosphere. There will be a lot of overseas fans. Ding will have a large support, and I hope there will be a few London-based Aussies in the crowd.
Ronnie O'Sullivan is not going to be there. Is that a disappointment for the players?
NR: Ronnie always brings a full house wherever he goes, especially in London. He has such a great record in the Masters that it is disappointing for the fans that he is not playing. But there is a great line-up, crowds will be up from last year and the sport is in a really good place at the moment with sponsors putting money into snooker.
Has the sport missed him these past few months?
NR: The sport has missed Ronnie, there is no doubt about that. He is the best in the world by some distance. Anybody who says anything else, is probably not realistic. He is the draw card, but we just have to get on with it while he is out. Other players have done very well this season. Judd (Trump) and John Higgins are having good seasons so there is plenty of top players to bring in the crowds. And there are plenty of good matches. I think Stuart Bingham could surprise a few people this week. But of course, any sport would miss a player of Ronnie's calibre.
Snooker can't afford to rely on one guy to sell itself.
NR: No, this is very true. The last 18 months has been about trying to continue to develop the sport in China and elsewhere. And the players are keen to extend the popularity of the sport. It is important for players to play an attractive style of play to sell the sport abroad.
I think Ronnie is working on a farm at the moment.
NR: Yeah. I don't know much about that.
Would you like to see him defend his world title in April? (O'Sullivan has indicated he could return to defend the title he won last year)
NR: I think he will defend his world title. Time will tell with Ronnie, but I hope he is enjoying his break, is relaxing and regains the hunger to come back to the sport when he is ready.
What is your opinion of the Alexandra Palace as a venue?
NR: I think it will be very difficult to replicate the atmosphere of the old Wembley Conference Centre. I played Jimmy White there before a full house in 2004 and that was some experience, but the Ally Pally comes a close second.
The event moved to Wembley Arena after the Conference Centre. What is the difference between the Ally Pally and the Wembley Arena?
NR: The sound of the venue is better, and the crowd seem to be more involved. Wembley Stadium was too big I think for snooker, and you always felt a bit distant from the crowd when you were playing. Ally Pally was one of the best atmospheres I've ever played in last year. I obviously have great memories of it alongside winning the world title at the Crucible.
What are your memories of last year? I remember you had to beat Judd Trump in the last four and Shaun Murphy in the final.
NR: Those were two really tough matches to try to get over the winning line in the tournament. I beat Mark Allen, who had just reached the final of the UK before beating Mark Williams and then Judd and Shaun. The draw doesn't get much tougher than that, and gave me extra satisfaction by winning it.
There were a few allegations flying around of slow play (made by Judd Trump in the semi-finals)? Did they inspire you?
NR: I was involved in a couple of safety exchanges with Judd. He probably felt I was thinking about the next shot too much. When my opponents play me, they probably don't want to leave me with any long ones. That is what I did, basically. I played some really good safety. When I was among the balls, I played relatively quickly and scored well among the balls.
It wasn't exactly the classic grinding performance of an Eddie Charlton or Cliff Thorburn from yesteryear.
NR: It wasn't like that at all. I don't mind taking a bit of time to play the right tactical shot during the match, but when you are among the balls it is good to just get on with it and score quickly.
Are you over the disappointment of losing to Mark Selby at the UK Championship? (Robertson lost 6-4 in the last eight having held a 4-0 lead. Selby went on to win the tournament)
NR: I learned a lot from that match. I probably got involved too much in the safety side of things against Mark. Mark is probably the ultimate grinder in the game at the moment. He is world number one. He scores well, but is also a very fine safety player. From my point of view, I got a little bit caught up in it all. I was disappointed and unfortunate to lose a couple of frames. But I just have to learn from it, and try to make amends at the Masters.
Is it a challenge to keep the momentum going with so many tournaments now on the calendar?
NR: I had a good break over Christmas, and I feel a lot more refreshed heading for the rest of the season.
What are the aims for the rest of the year?
NR: Winning the Masters or the world title would be the main aim, but there are so many tournaments over the next few months. I've won a couple of tournaments this season. It is nice to win the smaller tournaments, but I think competing for tournaments like the Masters, UK and world titles are the true test for me.
The Betfair Masters is LIVE on British Eurosport and runs from January 13-20 at London's Alexandra Palace.
First round (best of 11 frames)
Sunday January 13
Neil Robertson (Aus) v Ding Junhui (Chn)
Mark Allen (NI) v Mark Davis (Eng)
Monday January 14
John Higgins (Sco) v Ali Carter (Eng)
Stephen Maguire (Sco) v Graeme Dott (Sco)
Tuesday January 15
Judd Trump (Eng) v Barry Hawkins (Eng)
Shaun Murphy (Eng) v Ricky Walden (Eng)
Wednesday January 16
Mark Selby (Eng) v Stuart Bingham (Eng)
Mark Williams (Wal) v Matthew Stevens (Wal)
- Sports & Recreation
- Neil Robertson