Just eight months have passed since Ronnie O’Sullivan eased away from Kyren Wilson to claim his sixth World Snooker Championship crown in front of a socially distanced crowd at the Crucible.
But O’Sullivan’s hopes of equalling Stephen Hendry’s modern-day mark of seven are severely threatened by the timely resurgence of a man who is taking much longer to make a repeat impression.
When Neil Robertson won his first world title in 2010 it seemed inevitable he would quickly build on his success and become the first overseas player to claim multiple Crucible crowns.
But the Australian flattered to deceive in a decade that followed on the biggest stage, punctuating dominant phases that have swept him to 20 ranking titles with a swathe of disappointments in Sheffield, where he has a solitary semi-final appearance to his name since.
Robertson’s spectacular win over O’Sullivan to claim the Tour Championship title late last month – in which he reeled off six frames in a row to deal the Rocket a 10-4 drubbing – has emphatically shifted the dynamic in his favour ahead of the tournament’s swift return.
And Robertson is eager to grasp the significance of his most recent win, insisting: “I have beaten Ronnie before, but never over a multiple-session match. If I am to compete at the World Championship, I have to do that.
“I will have to compete in every session and I have done that in all my matches (at the Players’ Championship). I have been there in every session to pick up the pieces when someone has made a mistake.”
O’Sullivan showered Robertson with compliments after his title-winning performance, describing it as among the best he has ever seen, and adding: “If this guy keeps playing the way he’s playing then I think he’ll probably be the man to beat.”
O’Sullivan remains as unpredictable as ever, careering to his sixth title despite confessing to serious doubts about the quality of his game, and coming just 12 months after his stunning first-round defeat to amateur James Cahill.
But there are also gnawing doubts over world number one Judd Trump, who had looked set to ease into the Crucible fortnight as the unbackable favourite after a stellar season that saw him wrap up five more tour titles.
Trump appears to have somewhat lost his way in recent months, culminating in his Tour Championship defeat to Barry Hawkins, and his insistence that that the Crucible represents “just another title” will not necessarily instil his fans with confidence.
Elsewhere, veteran John Higgins remains firmly in the hunt for a fifth crown, not least on the evidence of his extraordinary performances at the Players’ Championship in February, including a 10-3 final thumping of O’Sullivan.
Last year’s vanquished finalist Wilson, emergent Masters champion Yan Bingtao, and Mark Selby, slowly clawing back to the form that has seen him hold the Crucible trophy aloft on three occasions, can all be considered genuine contenders.
But the spectre of O’Sullivan cannot help but loom large, and with crowds set to return under current coronavirus guidelines, Robertson warned that it could all play into the hands of the ‘Rocket’, who has lost all five of the ranking finals he has contested so far this season.
“The crowds add a different dynamic,” said Robertson. “It is different when he has 90 per cent of the crowd with him and he has his tail up. The other players will have to be prepared for that when they play him.”