2013 will be remembered as the year when Ronnie O’Sullivan won the world Championship – actually defended the title – after taking the whole season off.
At the end of 2012, Ronnie, the reigning world Champion, was in retirement and there was no certainty that he would come back to play professionally again. However, in January 2013, he popped up at the Masters, admitting that he was missing the people around the tournaments, although he wasn’t missing snooker itself.
Shortly before the Masters, in an interview with the written press, he had admitted that he was getting bored staying at home and that he was going voluntary work in a farm…
Ronnie O’Sullivan has revealed he has been spending his time labouring on a farm for free as he continues his sabbatical break from snooker.’Rocket’ Ronnie won his fourth world title last year before announcing he would be taking a break from the sport to spend time with his children and to help him cope with the depression problems he has suffered from throughout his 20-year career.
And as the world’s greatest prepare for next week’s Betfair Masters tournament at Alexandra Palace, the 37-year-old has told of how he has found a new lease of life helping out at a smallholding farm in Epping Forest three days a week.’I have been doing voluntary work on a farm,’ the 37-year-old told The Times.’I have been doing about three days a week and really enjoying it. It has been kind of the complete opposite to what I was going through the last couple of years in snooker.’The farm has got sheep, pigs, cows, goats, chickens, horses… and I have been getting the old green wellies on. I have been cleaning out stables and pigsties, taking down fences, putting rubbish into barrels and lorries and clearing mud.
‘I was getting so bored I had to do something, and needed a goal to get out of bed in the morning. I didn’t want stress, as that was what made me pull out of snooker, so I decided to go out and do something unpaid to help people out. I meet a lot of people there and I am very happy to do it.’It all happened when I ran past it; I got talking to the farmers and we fixed up that I would do some helping out.
‘O’Sullivan added: ‘I get there about 8am, do my three or four-mile run first because it is right in the forest, then come back and do about six hours work.’It has been kind of the opposite to what I was going through in snooker and I am really enjoying it.’O’Sullivan has been offered the chance to defend his world title in April by World Snooker chief Barry Hearn despite his ranking being too low to qualify for the tournament.The Chigwell-based potter revealed that he has still been playing snooker in his spare time, but he has not yet made a decision whether to appear at the Crucible.
He was in a better shape then, than when I had seen him at an exhibition with Stephen Hendry in Bruges (Belgium) towards the end of 2012. He was very low that time, and told me that he hadn’t been able to see his kids properly for weeks as the battle in court continued with his ex.
So, it wasn’t that much of a surprise when, end February, he announced that he would come back at the Crucible to defend his title
If Ronnie O’Sullivan pulls off an achievement he says would rank alongside his greatest in snooker, in returning to the sport after a year away to retain his world championship title, then his Chinese takeaway delivery driver will be entitled to an extra tip.
Claiming to have played “probably 10 days in nine months”, he did admit that the man who delivers his dinner had been roped in for some practice sessions, during which he realised he was hitting breaks of 80 or 90 and thought: “Wow, I’m playing OK”.
He said: “It was only practice and I wasn’t playing anyone any good, just my mate who is a Chinese takeaway delivery driver. He delivers, that’s all he does, he’s not a snooker player. He comes round and plays me in the day, and then delivers Chinese food in the evening. His name is Alex and he’s a good lad.” His food, incidentally, is also “very good”.
The 37-year-old has played only one competitive match since lifting the world championship in May – a lacklustre defeat to the lowly-ranked Simon Bedford in September. In November he announced plans for a year-long sabbatical, sparking renewed speculation the most gifted player of his generation would retire altogether. But his decision to defend his title, ensuring he retains his ranking points and does not have to return to the massed ranks of the qualifiers for major tournaments, marks another eye-catching U-turn from a career littered with them.
Ever the contrarian, O’Sullivan said that he realised he could not live without the game and that there was more to life than snooker. More than anything, he says, he was “bored” of rising in mid-morning and spending his days out to lunch.
“Boredom was a big factor. I missed travelling. I didn’t realise how much a part of my life it was. I missed the playing.”
O’Sullivan, whose rollercoaster career has included bouts of depression, illness and fits of pique alongside dizzying brilliance and a charisma that left the game yearning for his return, also said that his time away from snooker had left him with a better perspective on the part it played in his life.
“I had a nice year out. I had a lot of fun and I needed the rest. I just thought it was time to get back to doing what I’ve done for a lot of my life. I have a different perspective on it now,” said the four-time world champion.
“I moaned about the pressures and not playing well but I thought two or three months ago: ‘I’d take that back like a shot now’. Hopefully I won’t be as hard on myself, hopefully I will enjoy it more and enjoy playing rather than putting myself under pressure in tournaments to succeed.”
Which is not to say that he did not enjoy his time off. Asked what he had been up to, he smiled and drew a discreet veil: “You don’t want to know mate. Trust me. It has been good, though. Very good.”
“Personal issues” that played a part in his sabbatical remain unresolved and undiscussed publicly. He deflected all questions about his private life, pointing instead to his new book that will come out in the autumn and would, he said, allow him to explain the saga “in context”.
“I’m all right. I am here to talk about snooker, not my private life. I need to grow some shoulders, roll my sleeves up and have a go. I will give it my best and see what the outcome is,” he said.
As he spoke, O’Sullivan was surrounded by paraphernalia from his new sponsors – a company whose portfolio appears to range from vodka to water purification systems and will soon launch an energy drink called “Roket Fuel”. He was flanked by his friend Jimmy White, who is a “global ambassador” for the company.
Afterwards White, who reckoned O’Sullivan may have been hustling a little in playing down the extent to which he had been practicing, said he would be training with him in the six weeks they had left before they got to Sheffield. The defending champion will return to the Crucible on 20 April as the No1 seed and as such should be able to play his way into the tournament.
For all that he flits between showmanship and shyness, White said O’Sullivan’s abundant talent should not obscure his capacity for hard work, predicting that he would go on to beat Stephen Hendry’s record of seven world titles.
“They’re different animals. Hendry had the killer instinct and the dedication, but Ronnie has been away partying and doing what he wanted to do in life. But now it’s time to prove what he’s got. He’s had every head guru there is, but at the end of the day he knows it’s just down to himself.”
World Snooker impresario, Barry Hearn, was also predictably delighted about the return of his No1 box office draw. Bookmakers immediately installed him as 10-1 fifth favourite – but also offered 2-1 that he would walk away from the professional table again by the end of the year.
O’Sullivan predicted his return would form the basis for a fresh phase of his career that could last “two or three” or even “seven or eight” years. On the other hand, he conceded, it could all end tomorrow.
“I just need to get back to potting some balls and getting back to winning. Snooker is a means to an end. You only get one life, I want to make the most of it.”
It wasn’t all that simple though. With the decision, the pressure returned and, a couple of weeks before the Crucible, his manager told me that Ronnie was very edgy and anxious at the prospect of playing on the biggest stage of all after such a long break.
To be fair, nobody knew what to expect at the start of the championship. Being the defending champion, Ronnie was due to play in the first and last session on the first day. He faced Marcus Campbell and beat him convincingly. He then beat Ali Carter and Stuart Bingham comfortably, to set up a clash with Judd Trump, a player who, already then, had a good record against him. Ronnie beat him 17-11. The final against Barry Hawkins was a match of the highest quality. Barry stayed with Ronnie for the best of three sessions, but Ronnie found an extra gear and finished in style: a 18-12 win. Between them they had 24 breaks over 50, including 8 centuries, 6 from Ronnie and 2 from Barry.
Once again, Ronnie celebrated with his family, and Jason Francis who had been helping him since the start of the year and had secured a sponsor for him.
Ronnie was the World Champion again, but, as he had not played for full year (except a low profile match that he had lost) his ranking had suffered, and he started the 2013/14 ranked as low as 27. He was guaranteed to be seed n°1 at the 2014 World Championship but needed to play to avoid big problems the next season. He also had committed to his sponsor demand that he would play in a number of events over the next season.
That’s why he was back playing as soon as early June 2013, in Riga, where he reached the semi finals. He played in no less than six EPTC events that year, winning the 2013 Paul Hunter Classic and being runner-up to Mark Selby at the 2013 Antwerp Open.
In Antwerp, I got to see, close-up, that all the fuss made by fans around the alleged grudge and needle between Ronnie and Marc was well exagerated, certainly off the table. Ronnie was extremely tired after the final. His then manager – the disastrous Sony Naas – insisted that they should drive home that night. Ronnie wasn’t up for it, saying it would be dangerous for him to drive in that state of tiredness. But Sony was adamant that they should go back that night. Mark Selby stepped in, volunteering to drive Ronnie’s car with Sony, whilst his wife, Vicky would drive their own car. He was going well out of his way doing this, because Ronnie and Sonny were due to take the Eurotunnel, whilst the Selby family was going to catch a ferry and the schedules were different. Ronnie thanked Mark warmly but refused. He told Sony, very firmly, that they would find a hotel in Antwerp and travel the next day.
Ronnie also won the first instalment of the revived “Champion of Champions”, beating Stuart Bingham by 10-8 in the final.
The year ended on a minor disappointment, as the Stuart Bingham took revenge by beating him by 6-4 in the QF of the 2013 UK Championship.
Ronnie still had won nearly 85% of the matches he’d played over the year and, in Sheffield, done something that was deemed impossible. He was still snubbed by the BBC when SPOTY time came at the end of the year.