Vafaei Stirs Up O’Sullivan Clash
Hossein Vafaei, the flag-bearer for Iranian snooker, won a match at the Crucible for the first time with a 10-6 victory over Ding Junhui in the opening round of the Cazoo World Championship.
Vafaei will face Ronnie O’Sullivan in the second round, over three days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and added spice to the fixture by stoking up rivalry between the pair. “Ronnie O’Sullivan is such a legend, such a good player when he’s on the table,” said Vafaei. “He’s just such a nice person…when he’s asleep.”
World number 23 Vafaei, by far the best ever player from Iran, became the first player from his country to compete at the Crucible last year, losing to Judd Trump. The 28-year-old has now gone one step further thanks to a tremendous display against three-time UK Champion Ding, making two centuries and six more breaks over 50.
Vafaei trailed 5-4 overnight but reeled off the first four frames today in just 43 minutes with runs of 117, 122, 68 and 57 to go 8-5 up. China’s Ding, the 16th seed, pulled one back with a break of 77, but Vafaei bounced back with an 89 for 9-6. Ding had two scoring chances in frame 16 but could muster only ten points, and Vafaei’s run of 45 ended the tie.
His performance was good enough to inspire a standing ovation from the Crucible crowd. However, it was Vafaei’s comments about O’Sullivan which are sure to generate headlines. He referred to a match at last season’s German Masters qualifiers when he scored a 5-0 victory over O’Sullivan, who smashed the pack of reds from the break-off in the last frame.
“Ronnie was my hero,” said the 2022 Shoot Out champion. “I could never see myself beating him. When I beat him 5-0 I was a little bit sad, but on another side happy because I showed I can play. He will remember that, 100 per cent. Play like a man. Don’t play mind games or smash the balls and disrespect me, when 70 million or 80 million people are watching me in Iran. Now he’s my opponent. This is life. I have to stand up in front of him if I want to be World Champion.
“If we want this sport to improve, we need to respect each other, and teach others to respect us. When we don’t respect each other, even the people don’t respect us. We have to teach the children to respect their father and family, and everything will be good.
“I believe that everything happens for a reason, you can’t run away. If you do something bad to the people and break someone else’s heart, then God will give you an opportunity to get revenge.
“He has already proved everything, he has done everything in this sport. Hopefully I will play the way I played today. If he beats me 13-0 I will still love being involved in the match. Get your popcorn everyone!”
As for today’s match, Vafaei added: “It was such a great game, I enjoyed it a lot. I’m a big fan of Ding because he has opened up a massive market for snooker so every one of us should respect what he has done for our sport., I told him before the match that I am his fan, but this is a game and someone has to lose. Hopefully I can show this type of performance more.
“I don’t want to be boring! I love the fans, they pay to come and watch us. Nothing scares me and I enjoy playing in front of them. Sometimes I say something to make them laugh. I know that’s not our job, but it suits some people. If you want to be a champion, you must have the people’s heart.”
Ding said: “The first two frames, he took control. I tried to get it back but he was very good today. He could go far and win more matches.
“Overall this season has been very good. The past two seasons I was not there. Sometimes I have good season, then I disappear for a few seasons and come back again so I will try to be more consistent.”
On the other table, player of the season so far Mark Allen earned a hard fought 6-3 lead over Chinese debutant Fan Zhengyi following their first session.
Allen has already won three ranking titles this season, at the Northern Ireland Open, UK Championship and World Grand Prix. He arrives in Sheffield as the number three seed and one of the pre-tournament favourites.
A marathon first two frames went the way of the Northern Irishman this morning. He took a 30 minute opener and then claimed the second on the black after 26 minutes of play. Allen then made it 3-0, before crafting a break of 76 to lead 4-0 at the mid-session.
The hard match play snooker continued when play resumed, with Allen extending his lead to five by taking a 32 minute frame. Fan then showcased his ability with a brilliant burst to get back into contention. Breaks of 122 and 110 helped him to take the next three and reduce his arrears to 5-3. However, a run of 69 saw Allen take the last to end 6-3 in front. They play to a conclusion this evening at 7pm.