Sport Magazine Interview – 15 April 2016

Beauty and the Best by Sport Magazine

This article by Sport Magazine – the link to the original is just above – will not bring a lot of novelty to those who have been following Ronnie through his career, and read previous interviews. But it is a good one, where Ronnie appears calm and his insight of the psychology of competition is interesting. Also he tells us that he’s like to play for another 4-5 years, until he’s 45. He also tells us that the World Championship is not his main priority … but make no mistake, he’s been working, and, once at the table the competitive animal always wakes up! I feel that he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on himself, and I believe it’s the right attitude. He’s got nothing to prove after all.

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APRIL 14TH 2016ISSUE 446

AMIT KATWALA

BEAUTY & THE BEAST

Ronnie O’Sullivan on obsession, control and searching for gold

Ronnie O’Sullivan can exhale in a thousand different ways. 

He uses prolonged sighs and sharp intakes of breath like words, scattering his speech with them. At one point, he puffs out his cheeks and flaps his lips like a horse.

That’s the response when we unfold a photograph from 15 years ago – a picture of a young-but-troubled O’Sullivan holding the snooker World Championship trophy aloft for the first time. It took longer than anyone had expected.

“I felt like a different person,” he reflects. “Everybody was saying I was the best player to have never won the world title, and there was a bit of selfdoubt creeping in, I must admit. I’d seen everybody else around me winning the World Championship and I thought I was better than them. And for me not to have won it, I kind of thought, well, maybe I haven’t got something that they have.”

Self-doubt has plagued O’Sullivan’s career. He is a genius, widely regarded as the greatest player to pick up a snooker cue, even if the statistics don’t yet reflect that. But even now, after five World Championships, six Masters and five UK Championships, he finds it hard to picture himself in the same tier as his own sporting heroes. He believes they have something he does not.

“I think people like Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt – they are kind of blessed with this ability to just switch off,” O’Sullivan explains. He has, he says, always found it difficult to grind out wins. “I could never come from that school of thought – it was more in the beauty side of it, and if the beauty side of it wasn’t right then it didn’t matter about the result because the finesse and all that wasn’t there.”

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There is something undeniably beautiful about the Rocket in full flow – the YouTube video of his 1997 World Championship 147 break in just five minutes and 20 seconds, viewed nearly 2.4 million times, is proof enough of that.

“When I’m playing snooker I do feel like an energy is coming through me,” he says. “Probably if you see me walking around the house, walking around the shopping centre, you wouldn’t recognise me from the guy who has a snooker cue in his hand. I think that, when I get playing, adrenaline goes through your body and you start to get a little bounce in your step.”

Those moments don’t always come easily. “It’s like digging for gold,” he explains. “That’s probably the best way to describe snooker. There are a lot of times where you’re just digging and digging and digging and you think…” He breathes out. “I’m not really getting anywhere with this, and then: ‘Bang!’ It all happens, and you think: ‘Wow! It was worth it.’”

For O’Sullivan, these golden moments haven’t always been linked to success. Some haven’t even come in competition – in his 2014 autobiography Running, he recalls smashing in century after century playing Ronnie Wood and Mick Jagger.

“When I won the Masters this year I was digging and digging; I didn’t find no gold, yet I won the tournament,” he says. “In some of my interviews I was really harsh on myself. I felt I was lucky to get through because I wasn’t playing well; I felt my opponents missed lots of opportunities to beat me. I’m a lot better now at accepting not playing well and getting a win.”

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s sideburns are out of control.

That’s his own assessment during our photo shoot at The Grove. It’s a room full of snooker tables on an industrial estate near Romford, Essex, and a short drive from his home in Chigwell.

You get the impression that, if it was up to him, O’Sullivan would never leave this small corner of east London. He is one of a number of professional players who trains here. It’s empty today, but he prefers it when there are a few people around.

“It is quite an insular type of sport,” he admits. “In a normal day of practice you probably don’t speak for two or three hours, and you’re stuck in this environment where there’s no light.”

There are streaks of grey coming through in his otherwise jet black sideburns. At 40, however, he is arguably in a better place than he’s ever been.

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“I don’t think it is an age thing,” he says. “Five years ago I was 35 and if I hadn’t learnt by 35 I was never going to learn. I just needed to know that there was a different way.”

He has lost years of potential dominance to drink and drugs. In his teens, O’Sullivan was unstoppable – he won 74 of his first 76 professional matches. But everything changed when his father – an influential figure on his career – was jailed for murder.

“I went through a phase between 18 to 24 where I blottoed out a lot of stuff with things that were going on in my life,” he says. “I got into drinking and stuff, so for six or seven years I didn’t really deserve much from the game. It wasn’t until 2001 when I got myself sorted, so from 2001 to now I’ve had a good, solid 15 years.”

It has not all been plain sailing since then, though. There have been high-profile collapses and controversies, personal problems and extended breaks from snooker. Things have changed in the past few years, since O’Sullivan started working with sports psychologist Dr Steve Peters.

“I feel much more confident now as a player then I ever have done, to be honest, and I think that has to go down to working directly with Steve,” he says. “I always had the ability, but I never quite had the ability to control how I was feeling out there.”

His form is more stable as a result. Instead of fluctuating between 50 and 100 per cent, he says, he’s now performing to a steady 85 or 90 per cent of his ability.

“I know that is good enough for me to go and win tournaments,” O’Sullivan explains. “I’m not saying I’m going to win every tournament that I play in, but if I play consistently well it’ll take someone very good to beat me. I feel like my destiny is in my own hands a lot of the time.”

Ronnie O’Sullivan has an aura.

His mere presence in the chair – even if he’s disinterested, picking his nails, sitting with a towel over his head – can cause seasoned professionals to collapse. Even if you’re winning, you never know when he’s going to turn it on.

“Everything happens in quite slow motion,” he says of those times when he strikes gold. “It feels dynamic and it feels strong. You feel like the intensity level gets pushed up. I think there is that aura.

446ronnie4“I always feel like when you play people like Stephen Hendry and John Higgins, the intensity level rises and rises and they draw you into this environment, and it’s whether you can stay with it. They take you to that level; you can’t drag them down to yours. And I think that’s what I kind of do when I play as well.

“We play at such a high tempo and such a high intensity that, sometimes, the opponents get a bit freaked out by it, and they just think…” He puffs out his cheeks. “‘F**king hell, I can’t stay with this.’ It’s probably a bit like watching Manny Pacquiao in his prime where he was just constantly in your face. Eventually you’re gonna go: ‘F**k me, this geezer is just relentless, he ain’t gonna stop.’”

The question – for fans, bookmakers, and O’Sullivan’s opponents – is which version of him will turn up at the Crucible in Sheffield for the World Championship, which begins this weekend. O’Sullivan, who probably doesn’t even know the answer himself, is on the hunt for his sixth world title, which would draw him level with Steve Davis and Ray Reardon, and leave him one behind his idol Hendry.

“If I hadn’t had that six-year blotto-out and maybe met Steve Peters when I was 20, I could have possibly had seven, eight, nine world titles,” he says. “Who knows?”

After winning in 2012 and 2013, he is the tournament favourite. But he talks about it with trademark weariness: “I’m ready for a holiday, but got the World Championship to get through. It’s probably not too high on my priority list… I’m not saying I’m going to enjoy Sheffield because it’s a f**king marathon. It’s 17 days of pure slog.”

Ronnie O’Sullivan is an addict.

The focus of his obsession has changed over the years – from snooker to running to cooking, via junk food, alcohol and marijuana. At one point he even seemed to be addicted to going to addiction meetings. Like the protagonist from Fight Club, he attended meetings for addictions he didn’t even have.

“I tried SA – Sex Anonymous,” he reveals in his autobiography. He is just as frank with us. “I kind of have that in my DNA, to be quite obsessional,” he admits. It’s what pushed him to spend 10 or 11 hours a day at the table from the age of seven. We put it to him that you can’t separate the talent from the obsession – that the gift and the demons come as a package deal.

“I think you’re right,” he says. “I’ve seen plenty of kids that had the same amount of talent as me, if not more, but they kind of got side-tracked. Whenever I was practising they’d be out with their mates or they’d be out roller-skating. I was the one putting in the hours on the table.”

There are times when O’Sullivan has almost discarded snooker in favour of other addictions. He says the best days of his life, other than his kids being born, were appearing on Saturday Kitchen and during the height of his running obsession – when he set himself a target of qualifying to run for Essex over 10km.

Despite his time away and his detached demeanour, he keeps coming back to his first love. “I think there is an addiction there in some sort of way,” he says. “I’m not sure I’d like to devote my whole life to just playing snooker. These past two years I’ve kind of thought: ‘Well, I’m now 40 – I can’t realistically go on forever.’ What is the next 20 years going to be like for me?”

Does he still need snooker? “Less and less as I’ve got a bit older,” he says. “If I wasn’t to play any more, people would go: ‘Well he got to 40 and he had a pretty good innings.’ It wouldn’t be seen as like Eric Cantona or George Best, when they turned their back on football when possibly that was too early for people like them. We missed out on seeing them. If I was going to put a limit on it, I’d say probably 45 would be a good time. I’ll see if I can get another five years out of it if I can.”

Snooker is all about control. We put it to O’Sullivan there is a contrast between the control he demonstrates on the table and his rollercoaster life outside the sport.

“Absolutely, yeah,” he agrees, gesturing to the photo of his 25-year-old self. “At that stage in my life, everything was in control, there was nothing that could have got in the way. But over the past five, six, seven years certain things have happened that were out of my control and I haven’t been able to deal with it as well as I’d like to.

“But you learn to… it’s just life sometimes, and it does make you feel a little bit vulnerable, but then you also start to realise that maybe snooker isn’t everything. At some point you’ve got to put your health and life and your happiness first.”

After 25 years of digging for gold and grasping for control in low-lit snooker clubs and packed theatres, the addict with the aura – the talented and tormented O’Sullivan – has opened his eyes to the glittering moments beyond.

“It’s only a game,” he grins, eyes wide with the possibilities.

Watch the World Championship LIVE on Eurosport, with Colin Murray and analysis from Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan