Ronnie’s interview with the Belfast Telegraph

Ahead of his clash with Stephen Hendry at the Waterfront in Belfast in just over a week from now, Ronnie spoke to the Belfast Telegraph

It was merely a lovers’ tiff. The love affair is set to last for years yet. Ronnie O’Sullivan will breeze into Belfast on Monday week for a clash with Stephen Hendry back in love with snooker and fully focused on trying to overtake the Scottish legend as the greatest player of all time.

Hendry has a record seven world titles to his name, with the mercurial O’Sullivan two behind.

At 46, Hendry is no longer competing at the highest level but 39-year-old O’Sullivan, although not the current world champion, is still regarded by many as the best on the planet.

“I would love to be able to close the gap (to seven world titles),” said ‘The Rocket’.

“But the standard is so high these days it’s very hard to win the world title. Even if I won another one I would be over the moon.

“The game has changed over the years – the standard is very high but in a different way. The players nowadays are better potters and the game is more based on power.

“Years ago players were better tactically, better safety players.

“So the modern game probably suits me better.

“I intend to play for as long as I can. Jimmy White is still competing at 53. If I can keep going that long that would be great.

“Some days I don’t want to play but then a couple of days later I am loving it again.

“Our sport is demanding and I am demanding on myself. One good performance can turn things around. Sometimes you just have to be patient.

“Sometimes you say things in the heat of the moment and don’t really mean them.”

And O’Sullivan is relishing his showdown with Hendry at the Waterfront Hall, scene of his Northern Ireland Trophy triumph in 2008, the last time the tournament was played.

“I loved playing in the Northern Ireland Trophy at the Waterfront. It was a great venue and a brilliant tournament. The sooner we have a big tournament back in Belfast the better. The fans in Belfast love their snooker and the game there has great tradition,” he said.

And the Ulster public will get the chance to see the two greatest break builders of all time, O’Sullivan leading the way with most competitive centuries (794) and maximums (13), Hendry his main challenger for both accolades.

O’Sullivan has also fired the fastest 147 – five minutes 20 seconds.

And O’Sullivan admits he has a soft spot for Belfast, given its connection with one of his heroes, the late Alex Higgins.

“I loved Alex Higgins – what a character. He was the George Best of snooker,” he commented.

“I used to watch Alex a lot when I was growing up. When I first turned pro at 16 I met him at a tournament and I was chuffed because he knew my name. I used to go to the bar and get his Guinness.

“We always got on well and we often practised together.

“I tried to incorporate the best parts of his game into my own game. He had great touch, he could generate great power without really hitting the cueball hard. He showed me how to get more control of the cue.”

Match-fixing has been a scourge of snooker in recent years, with former world number five Stephen Lee – banned for 12 years – the most high-profile example.

‘The Hurricane’ has said that he was once offered money to throw a match but the Belfast potter refused to get involved.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” said O’Sullivan. “Alex was the ultimate competitor – he just loved winning.

“There have been players found guilty of match-fixing but a strong message has always been sent out by the game’s authorities in terms of bans.”

And O’Sullivan denies that drugs are a problem in snooker.

“I think drugs used to be a bigger issue with things like beta blockers. But not so much now. Snooker is a very clean sport,” he said.

The Londoner refuses to jump on the Olympic bandwagon, with cheerleaders for a variety of sports demanding inclusion in the Games.

“For me, the Olympics have to be the ultimate in your particular sport,” he said.

“Of course it would be great to have an Olympic gold medal round your neck but I would rather win the World Championship, the Masters, any of the big tournaments. That’s what you dream of as a kid.”

But O’Sullivan is no strict traditionalist, with a fear of change. A move away from the World Championship’s legendary Crucible Theatre home in Sheffield is not something he would rule out.

“You always dreamed of playing at the Crucible as a kid and it’s still the place to play snooker. It’s a very intimate venue,” he said.

“But a purpose-built, bigger venue might be the way forward. It’s like when you go to the football. Spurs have an intimate, traditional venue with a great atmosphere. Arsenal’s ground is bigger and modern but maybe loses something in atmosphere. There are pros and cons.”

And he wouldn’t rule out the World Championship being played in the snooker hotbed of China.

He added: “Snooker is massive in China, the people there love the game. There is huge investment being made in snooker in China.”

O’Sullivan claims to be in love with snooker, but his love of distance running remains strong as well.

“Running helps you cope with life in certain situations. It makes you feel better. It’s part of being a professional sportsman. It helps to be physically fit,” he said.

The Waterfront showdown between O’Sullivan and Hendry promises to be a massive night, with Ulster legend Dennis Taylor also involved.

Taylor’s 1985 world title is the one everyone always remembers, the classic black ball decider against Steve Davis that pulled in a record television audience of nearly 20million way after midnight.

What snooker would give for those kind of numbers these days, but O’Sullivan is the one player who transcends the sport and excites the punters.

And fireworks are guaranteed on Monday week, the event part of the popular Legends Tour.

Ronnie O’Sullivan secured his status as a legend a long time ago.