Any notion that the most extraordinary grudge match in snooker history would fail to live up to the pre-game billing was dispelled before a ball had even been potted. Snooker has had its fair share of eagerly anticipated showdowns in recent times but none have had a backdrop and subplot quite like this one. In the end, the match delivered just as much as the drama did.
How Barry Hearn, snooker’s grand supremo and lover of any off-baize action that generates publicity, must have grinned when Reanne Evans refused Mark Allen’s offer of a handshake before the break-off in their first-round match at the British Open in Leicester. There is, of course, way more to this story than ranking points, prize money or head-to-head meetings on the table but even that lit the touch-paper in a way nobody could have imagined.
Allen and Evans being drawn together was by far and away the standout tie in the first round, owing to the fact they had a relationship which ended acrimoniously in 2008 and have a 14-year-old daughter together. There has surely never been a match-up as personal as this in any sport, let alone snooker.
Yet this runs even deeper than that. Allen would never have imagined he would be in this situation earlier this year, when he had Evans removed from the Crucible’s practice area while he was warming up for a match and Evans was working as a pundit. Perhaps it was that moment which helped make Evans the overwhelming favourite with the supporters on Monday evening.
Some had labelled Evans the “bitter ex-partner” of the world No 12 in the run-up to this match. But that does an immense disservice to her contribution to the snooker, particularly the women’s game, where she is a 12-times world champion and was recently awarded a two-year tour card on the professional circuit as a deserved reward for her dominance.
Her rowdy band of fans made this feel more like a World Championship match at times, with vivid memories of the kind of boisterous support Steve Davis received at the Crucible during the 1980s. She even had to tell them to calm down after the second frame here, when she levelled the match at 1-1 after Allen took the opening frame.
But in the end, it was Allen who had the last laugh – though at one stage he was staring down the barrel of elimination by Evans. After forging a 2-1 lead in this best-of-five game, Evans then moved to within just one pot of victory. She was 60-0 ahead and needed one more red to claim the headlines. But it wobbled desperately in the jaw of the pocket.
To Allen’s credit, the clearance which followed to send the match to a deciding frame was of supreme quality. He then held his nerve in the decider, not giving Evans a sniff with a break of 68. She battled on in the hope of claiming the three snookers required to create the slice of snooker history which had seemed inevitable just minutes earlier. But it was ultimately to no avail. Unsurprisingly, there was also no handshake at the end of the match.
You felt that if Evans had emerged victorious here, there would have been wild celebrations. Maybe not from her, but from those in attendance who were so keen to see her be on the right side of this remarkable personal battle.
Allen, however, had no interest in that. He, you felt, was just relieved to be in the next round and perhaps put this matter to bed. If they do meet again at some point in the future however, you can bet he’ll have to go through this all over again.