The Masters: Snooker’s Finest Invitational Tournament

by Timmy Evans

When ‘The Masters’ came into being in 1975, few could have predicted the drama, excitement, agony, and long-lasting memories the tournament would create. Since that first staging of the event, at Fulham’s West Centre hotel, we’ve seen it all: amazing comebacks, controversial moments, missed pots.. Few tournaments compare to snooker’s premier Invitational event.

The tournament was to be sponsored by Benson & Hedges, and it was to be a match made in heaven. The cigarette company would continue their partnership until 2003, when the ban on tobacco advertising saw them forced out. Had it not been for this, it’s hard to imagine them withdrawing their support. Indeed, the very first final was perhaps a sign of things to come. It was fought out between the two outstanding players of the Seventies, John Spencer & Ray Reardon. In typical Masters fashion, it went all the way to a deciding frame, and from there to a re-spotted black. It was the Englishman who became the inaugural Masters Champion, and would be the first in a long line of winners that now reads like a ‘who’s who’ of snooker greats.

After spending three years at the New London Theatre, The Masters moved to what would become its spiritual home: The Wembley Conference Centre. Wembley’s inaugural hosting of the event saw South African Perrie Mans crowned champion, and the tournament would remain at Wembley until it’s demolition in 2006. After back-to-back final defeats in 1979 and 1980, snooker’s biggest draw, Alex Higgins, claimed the title in 1981 with a 9-6 victory over defending champion Terry Griffiths. Griffiths was again runner-up the following year, when Steve Davis claimed his first Masters crown.

Cliff Thorburn
Cliff Thorburn, the first man to succesfully defend the Masters.

Throughout the years, some players showed themselves to be ‘Masters specialists’. It is perhaps fair to say that Cliff Thorburn was the first of this breed who seemed to flourish at Wembley. Thorburn was crowned champion for the first time in 1983, and reclaimed the championship in 1985 with a 9-6 win over Doug Mountjoy. Thorburn would become the first player to successfully defend the Masters one year on, beating home favourite Jimmy White. White himself is a man with great ties to this event. Indeed, it’s fair to say that no player has ever been as well supported at Wembley as ‘The Whirlwind’.

Kirk Stevens
Kirk Stevens compiled a maximum break against Jimmy White in 1984.

Unfortunately, he could only ever win the tournament once, in 1984, but that staging would be remembered more for its classic semi-final rather than the showpiece. White won that semi-final by six frames to four against his close friend Kirk Stevens, but the scoreline was secondary in importance. The ninth frame saw the tournament’s first maximum break when Canada’s Stevens compiled a glorious 147. The scenes after the enthralling break were breathtaking, and it was no doubt Steven’s proudest moment. White, not keen on being upstaged, compiled a fine century in the final frame himself, with his ‘banana shots’ becoming part of the Wembley folklore. Stevens’ maximum was the last until Ding Junhui’s 147 in 2007.

Stephen Hendry with another Masters title
Stephen Hendry (pictured with Mark Williams before the 2003 final) has won the tournament a record six times.

The Masters is an event that seems to lend itself to heroic comebacks. One of the earlier examples of such fighting spirit was in 1987, as Dennis Taylor overturned an 8-5 deficit against his compatriot and bitter rival Alex Higgins in the final. 1991 would see one of the more remarkable ones though. Mike Hallett was already someone with very dark memories of Wembley. Three years previously, he suffered the embarrassment of losing 9-0 to Steve Davis in the final. This time round, he took on the great Stephen Hendry. It was only Hendry’s third appearance at the tournament, but his unbeaten Wembley record was still in tact. Amazingly though, Hendry fell 7-0 down to Hallett, and an upset seemed likely. Hallett missed a wonderful chance to wrap up the title in the eleventh frame, but blew it, and if ever a player’s career ended with a single frame, this was it. Hendry went on to claim a remarkable 9-8 success, and would not be beaten at Wembley until his surprise 9-8 loss to Alan McManus in 1994. Surprisingly, 1996 would be his last outright win in London, but his record of six Wembley triumphs is one that should stand for many years to come.

Ronnie O'Sullivan with the Masters trophy
Ronnie O’Sullivan with the current trophy after Hendry was allowed to keep the previous one by virtue of his five straight wins in the 1990’s.

Ronnie O’Sullivan is the one man who can compete with Jimmy White of the title of people’s champion at Wembley, and he has a fine record at the event. In 1995 he hammered Scotland’s John Higgins in the final, but it would take another ten years for him to triumph at London again. He was a runner-up in 1996, and in 1997 succumbed to another great Masters comeback. This time, Steve Davis rolled back the years from 8-4 down, a third Masters title for the nugget with a 10-8 win. O’Sullivan finally ended his drought in 2005 with a breathtaking 10-3 win against John Higgins, and repeated the trick against Ding Junhui two years later. The nature of the defeat left Ding in tears, but memorably, the Rocket offered him a handkerchief in another great Masters moment. Ronnie would again triumph in 2009, this time a 10-8 winner over 2008 Champion Mark Selby.

Wembley has seen its fair share of drama. In 1998, Stephen Hendry uncharacteristically missed a seemingly simple black in a deciding frame against Mark Williams, just showing the effect pressure can have. Williams potted the black to tie the scores, and went on to win his first Masters on the re-spotted black. Two years later, Ken Doherty missed the black off its spot for a maximum break. To compound the Irishman’s misery, Matthew Stevens went on to beat him 10-8.

Paul Hunter raising the Masters trophy
Paul Hunter was a comeback specialist in Masters finals.

The noughties were in many ways ‘The Hunter Years’ at Wembley. With the help of his girlfriend Lyndsey, he completed comeback after comeback in Masters finals, thanks in no small part to the ‘sessions in between sessions’. His ‘plan B’ was the stuff of legend, and showed just how much character was lost with the Englishman’s tragic death in 2006. Hunter was champion in 2001 against Fergal O’Brien in 2001, coming from 7-3 down to win in the deciding frame, and again in 2002 from 5-0 down against Mark Williams, repeating the 10-9 scoreline. Williams may have won the last Masters under the Benson & Hedges name in 2003, but Hunter reigned supreme again in 2004, with arguably his finest win. He trailed Ronnie O’Sullivan by 7-2, but thanks to 5 centuries, was champion yet again. Hunter remains one of the very few players to beat the Rocket playing close to his best.

2006 was an end of an era of sorts, with the last Masters at the Wembley Conference Centre. It got the final it deserved, a magical encounter between John Higgins & Ronnie O’Sullivan. It was Ronnie who knocked in three centuries, but Higgins still forced a deciding frame. The Rocket seemed to have defended his title with a 60 break in the decider, but amazingly, Higgins took the title with a stunning clearance. The opening red barely succumbed to gravity, but once it did, the brilliant Scottish player never looked back. His 64 sealed the crown, and remains etched in the memory of all who were luck enough to see it.

Ronnie O'Sullivan consoles Ding Junhui after the 2007 Masters final
One of the tournaments iconic moments: Ronnie O’Sullivan consoles Ding Junhui after the 2007 final.

The tournament has since moved on the The Wembley Arena, and already we’ve seen some fine moments. Ronnie looked awesome in the 2007 final against maximum man Ding Junhui, and two years later he won a brilliant tussle against Mark Selby. Who knows what magic lies around the corner in this very special tournament.

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