My trouble with Ronnie O’Sullivan

It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with this, but Ronnie O’Sullivan is the greatest snooker player ever. He’s not the greatest professional, at times he’s a pretty awful ambassador, but he’s the best player by an ever-increasing distance.

It was probably 1987 when I first heard of Ronnie. I had been watching snooker at my grandmother’s knee for years before that, but I had recently discovered that there were snooker magazines, and when Stephen Hendry won his first professional title outside of the Scotland, I bought every report I could get my hands on. In the midst of it all were stories of the next prodigy hot on the heels of the 18-year-old Hendry. But this kid, Ronnie O’Sullivan, at 11 years of age was already in trouble for escaping from his chalet at night in Pontin’s, who hosted a range of different amateur and pro-am snooker competitions and jamborees during the year, and whose Prestatyn holiday camp became a sort of purgatory for those professionals toiling through the qualifiers in later years.

O’Sullivan turned out to be everything he was cracked up to be — brash, bratty, and an exceptional player. When he turned professional in 1992, he didn’t falter, but blasted his way through a summer of qualifying matches to claim his place at the big tournaments. By this time, Hendry was the dominant force, having inherited the mantle of Steve Davis. Both Davis and Hendry lived by being consistent, ruthless, and dedicated. Hendry might easily have been otherwise — he wanted to win, but without the influence of his manager Ian Doyle, he might not have developed the habits that allowed him to. The serious approach, the professional conduct off the table, the unerring efficiency on it: these were what I learned made a winner at snooker. If there was any doubt, there was Jimmy White on the flipside to prove the point — a man who could make the most beautiful shots imaginable but was doomed not to be a regular winner, and sadly never to be world professional champion.

Hundreds of others turned professional at the same time as O’Sullivan, of course, as the game opened up after years of admitting only eight or so rookies annually. Among those hundreds were a few other astonishing talents — John Higgins, Mark Williams, and Stephen Lee being the most obvious. Higgins fitted the mould of a Davis or a Hendry — a true snooker brain who would master every corner of the game, and who by remaining a winner even to this season stakes a fair claim at the “greatest” label himself. Williams and Lee were gifted potters and breakbuilders, the former twice winning the world championship whilst seemingly not seeing the point of clearing the table once a frame was won, and the latter becoming yet another cautionary tale in snooker’s annals.

For twenty years O’Sullivan wrestled his demons in public and in private. There were reasons, if not excuses for a lot of it: the extraordinary performances followed by threats to quit; sudden infatuations with new coaches, new hobbies, new managers; terrible emotional lows mixed with appalling temper tantrums. You could write a hundred stories a year about the man and not cover half of what he did, nor find any particular consistency of character. For a couple of those years, I was a regular in the snooker press room — working for snooker websites, I wanted to report on the brilliant performances not the sideshow. I was a snooker person, not a sports reporter slumming it at the snooker and keen for a bit of tittle tattle that might encourage an editor to sacrifice one or two paragraphs of lower league football to make space. For me, O’Sullivan hyperactively and lengthily telling me on camera why he made the best shepherd’s pie was better than the monosyllables of some other players, but not particularly useful, and those sorts of interviews were often also a worrying sign of an imminent crash. And not even his worst enemy could enjoy watching O’Sullivan crash —the frustration, desperation, self-destruction.

All along there were amazing highlights — the quick frames, the quick matches, the breaks that came from nowhere. Not all his best performances were winning ones either — some titanic clashes with Hendry and Higgins in particular marked out O’Sullivan as a battler as well as an elegant frontrunner. There were the days when opponents slowed him down as the only way of coping with him, some doing so beyond the reasonable limits of slow play. But there were plenty of days when he just wasn’t on it either— the hype that O’Sullivan only loses when he chooses not to play well is indeed just hype, as is any suggestion that he doesn’t have to work to produce his best form. The natural talent O’Sullivan has in abundance would never have been enough alone to make him the player he is. He may well be a genius, but he has put perspiration with inspiration for many many years. He has also had to rededicate himself to the mental side of the game to avoid those implosions which certainly cost him tournament titles in the past, and sometimes he still can’t help acting on impulse. The 146 controversy has been well debated in other places this week; I would have found it cheeky but harmless, if snooker did not rely so heavily on betting companies for sponsorship revenue. (Why snooker has moved from a tobacco monoculture to relying almost wholly on another sector ripe for tighter sponsorship regulation is perhaps another question for another time).

In the last few years, O’Sullivan has proved himself again. He has produced frames and sessions of snooker that are as good as any ever seen at a time when by all expectations he should be on the wane. He’s not the oldest player to play well, but he’s not that far off, and this from the guy who used to break all the “youngest” records. There are still the ridiculous side stories — working on a pig farm, alleged religious epiphanies, playing only to pay the kids’ school fees, making dodgy gestures on camera. But he’s played some extraordinary snooker —choosing his events and winning many of them convincingly. It’s only in recent years that this flexibility in schedule has come into snooker, so it’s not completely certain how the greats who went before him might have done in the same circumstances. Both Davis and Hendry had years when they won almost every ranking event on offer (Hendry won five ranking events and three significant invitationals in his first season as world champion; Davis won four out of six ranking events in 1987/88 including the world championship, and added four invitationals including the Masters for good measure). But those were days when the first couple of rounds were fairly handy; it’s never really a shock to lose in the first round any more.

I used to think that O’Sullivan needed to exceed Stephen Hendry’s seven world titles to usurp him as the greatest ever. I don’t any more, and it’s not beyond O’Sullivan’s grasp in any case. Hendry asked last season why the rest of the players aren’t putting it up to O’Sullivan more; I can understand his frustration but in his last few years as a professional, and particularly in their last two matches at The Crucible, O’Sullivan owned him. As he seems to many of the players most of the time. There was certainly an inevitability at last month’s Masters as each likely contender played a great match followed by a stinker — the only exception to this being Neil Robertson who played brilliantly in defeat to Judd Trump, who then went on to play a stinker… Mark Williams, having run O’Sullivan close in his opening game, tweeted that even by the world championship everyone else would be playing for second place. O’Sullivan didn’t play his best at Ally Pally, but then he didn’t need to, and he did play extremely well.

Trump’s dawning realisation at the age of 26 that he should spend a little less time partying perhaps suggests he is ready to mount a challenge, and it may be that one of the chasing pack has a particularly good run as Stuart Bingham did at The Crucible in 2015. On paper, not least on newspapers, it feels like the game only has one player right now and that won’t make compelling competition. If you like O’Sullivan, maybe consider giving Robertson or Trump a bit of your time. Or watch some of the qualifiers and see who you think might be the next big thing. Ronnie O’Sullivan is snooker’s brightest star, and its greatest ever player, but if he eclipses the sport itself, how will his achievements be ranked? He will still be famous, but famous for winning what and for beating whom? After three decades of extraordinary snooker that seems like losing to me. By all means take the time to admire and treasure O’Sullivan — he has bucked all the trends in snooker by staying close to the top of the game for so long, but even he won’t be around for ever.

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