As we have a day off at the 2020 UK Championship … You feel bored? Missing the snooker? here is something to read.
UK CHAMPIONSHIP 2020: ‘I FEEL LIKE I’M KING OF MY CASTLE’ – RONNIE O’SULLIVAN ON EPIC RETURN TO TOP
BY DESMOND KANE
A revitalised Ronnie O’Sullivan has found a fresh passion for potting and is performing better than ever in his fourth decade at the snooker summit. The six-times defending world champion tells Desmond Kane how he potted and plotted his return to glory in the year of the pandemic. His year could yet get better as he targets an eighth UK Championship at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes.
For Ronnie O’Sullivan, the world is not enough. Not when he has fallen in love with his time-served passion for potting all over again. At the venerable snooker age of 44, a juncture when most professionals are on the wane as former glories frustratingly fade into the framed fug of yesteryear and dewy-eyed folklore, the world champion seems to just be getting warmed up.
“I wish I could have enjoyed playing like this earlier on in my career. I’ve had so much fun,” he said after losing 9-7 to Judd Trump in an epic Northern Ireland Open final having contributed two centuries and five breaks over 50 in a narrow defeat.
While Trump is world number one after lifting a whopping 11 ranking events over the past two years, the big one eluded him last season. It is a rejuvenated O’Sullivan who again holds snooker’s most coveted prize six years after his fifth Crucible triumph in Sheffield.
His status as the greatest player of all time was already secured due to his astonishing longevity and an incomparable mastering of his modern art form. His ongoing brilliance in brandishing a cue is perhaps comparable in genius to Pablo Picasso clutching a paintbrush and projecting an inspired soul.
O’Sullivan specialises in snooker surrealism beyond the confines of a 12ft by 6ft table. His next canvas is the UK Championship in Milton Keynes where he hopes to splash some colour over a record eighth trophy. It would be a special end to a year that has witnessed O’Sullivan conquer the Crucible while searching for a cue action that has stood the test of time.
“The big events are the yardstick, the three things that never change in snooker,” O’Sullivan tells Eurosport. “That is the only true measure of where you stand in the game. The important records are the World Championship, the Masters and the UK. Obviously how many times you have won them marks you out. Jack Nicklaus has got 18 majors in golf, six of them came in the Masters, five in the US PGA, four US Opens and three British Opens.
“That applies the same to snooker. So, to have the record of winning 20 majors, six world titles, seven UKs and seven Masters – I’ve got three out of the four important records. Hendry still has seven world titles, but I’m not greedy. I’m happy to have hit them spots and get the job done in the important events.”
THE PEOPLE AROUND ME SAY I’M CRAZY, ‘WHY ARE YOU BOTHERING ANYMORE?’
“Snooker is about the narrative, growing with the story. It doesn’t have to be fast and furious,” the six-times world champion Steve Davis once remarked. O’Sullivan has become the main protagonist of that narrative.
Such has been the enduring, ongoing adroitness of Rocket Ronnie, it is easy to forget that he had yet to win his first world title before he overcame his close friend and fierce foe John Higgins 18-14 in the 2001 final aged 25 at the Crucible Theatre. Yet here he is two decades on, prowling the table like he is in the first flush of youth, like a fictional melding of Fast Eddie Felson and Benjamin Button of the old green baize, playing out a generation game with his generation like no other sportsman.
The angles have not and will not wither him. Like the formidable Welsh potter Cliff Wilson, he is not one for holding back when the mood takes him as a timeless trend-setter. There remains a youthfulness, a creative ambition and a vital sense of adventure about his play that truly is something to behold in any field of sporting excellence. In any field of professional sport.
Higgins – the four-times Crucible champion from Scotland – himself made from girders, turned professional alongside O’Sullivan 28 years ago and once said that he knew his fellow ‘Class of 92’ graduate was destined for greatness when he first witnessed him at the age of 15 because he gave off a glow like “the Ready Brek man”.
Despite yearning for the cathedral city of York, traditional home of the UK Championship, O’Sullivan has been relocated and reinvigorated behind closed doors in Milton Keynes, his self-belief emboldened by claiming the World Championship with an 18-8 final filleting of Kyren Wilson, a player 16 years younger, in a quite August. His sixth title came after a six-year wait in potting purgatory.
“Playing snooker, most of the people around me say I’m crazy, why are you bothering anymore?” he tells Eurosport. “But I always say to them, it isn’t going to be forever. While I can do it with one arm and one leg and still compete, I’ll play snooker. Listen, I have a bit of fun with it.
“The way I approach it is if I get to a tournament and don’t feel like it, it doesn’t matter if I win or lose. But there are times when I really, really love it and I want to play and I’ll put 100 percent effort in. It all depends on what side of the bed you get out of sometimes. I just let a bad day turn into a really bad day and get home a little bit earlier. But when the good days are there, I keep going with those ones.”
The good ones continue to vastly outnumber the bad ones for O’Sullivan, particularly in the latter half of his career. He continues to find fresh ground with endless possibilities and prospects in a career trajectory which is nowhere near its final denouement, totalling a record 37 ranking titles including seven Masters and seven UKs to go with the half a dozen world crowns snagged over four pristine decades of play. Snared in his teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, it is quite a dynasty of World Snooker Tour’s Triple Crown series. Sometimes it seems as though there is nowhere he hasn’t spread his green baize gospel amid a salivating fan base which transcends the sport.
Put quite simply, the opposition are nowhere near being good enough to retire him.
It is easy to gush when you study O’Sullivan’s majestic levels of form that has wrought over 1050 centuries, the most of any player in history. It is also difficult to suggest the year of the pandemic has provided him with some sort of snooker renaissance, because he has never really gone away.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD AGAIN
Much of O’Sullivan’s appetite for the game has been sated by making good on his promise to right the wrongs of 2014, a year that seemed to signal the death knell on his hopes of joining Davis and Ray Reardon as a six-times world champion. After his latest rousing victory, matching Stephen Hendry’s scintillating seven-year stretch between 1990 and 1999 is no longer a foolhardy notion.
During coronavirus lockdown, O’Sullivan ended up sporting a Merv Hughes-type moustache, but was also busy explaining to Hendry on Instagram that he had real regrets about the past. “The match I’d like to play again would be Selby in the 2014 final because I’d have played it differently,” he said in June. “I would have done everything I could to not get bogged down and keep the game open. When I looked back, I thought I’d got sucked into his game. It wasn’t until after that game that I thought, ‘yeah I might lose to you and I probably will lose to you again, but it’s going to be on my terms’.”
It was perhaps written in the Crucible light bulbs then that he would again confront the three-times world champion Selby this year with the whole shooting match on the table before O’Sullivan decided to go all in.
O’Sullivan came into their semi-final arguably as second favourite despite wins over Thepchaiya Un-Nooh, Ding Junhui and Mark Williams on his sojourn to face the only player to defeat him in world, Masters and UK finals.
It was his first experience of the fabled one-table set-up at the venue in over half a decade having lost two quarter-finals to Ding Junhui and Stuart Bingham, two last-16 matches to Ali Carter and Barry Hawkins respectively and a shocking first-round amateur defeat to James Cahill a year earlier when the magnitude of the moment seemed to visibly disturb him.
The 44th staging of the delayed World Championship was by common consent an elongated, excruciating event that looked beyond his attention span if not his ability. Selby was once described by O’Sullivan as “the torturer” and the sport’s most taut and tortuous contest of the year would provide him with a road out of potting perdition.
O’Sullivan was staring into the abyss trailing 16-14 in a contest that saw Selby’s tactical supremacy largely dominate as he led at various junctures – most notably 13-9 on the final day. He was on the cusp of another crushing failure against a hardened, no-frills professional nicknamed the ‘Jester from Leicester’ with little scope for humour on the table.
Selby had decimated his dreams when he recovered from trailing 10-5 to win the world final 18-14 in 2014, a defeat built on starving O’Sullivan of chances and momentum. He forced him to wilt and wait amid a potting purgatory that left O’Sullivan wondering if he still possessed the minerals to conquer the green baize equivalent of K2.
O’Sullivan performed in fits and starts in their latest Crucible joust, with both hands and haste, yet still translated desire into fulfilment with his usual élan, mischief, nonchalance but most poignantly an unwillingness to bend and break, to yield in time. First in, best dressed. Faced with certain defeat, O’Sullivan was an Englishman who went up the side of a mountain but came down a hill as his long game suddenly became impregnable with several blistering pots and awe-inspiring breaks of 138, 71 and 64 in three prodigious closing frames. Then came one of the most telling safety shots in Crucible history helping win him the final before the final with a rousing finale.
His thoughts of early summer and his promises to repair the damage done by his previous scarring loss to Selby were ripe on the vine in the autumn of his aspirations.
“At some point you think, I’ve been here for three days. He’s got the better of me and if it continues going like this, he’s probably going to win this match,” recalls O’Sullivan. “I needed to try to win it on my terms. The only way I was going to do that was trying to play the perfect snooker really. Score big breaks and pot well – I only needed to find a good 30 or 40 minutes really. I needed three quick frames and I could get the job done. Back to the wall, and sometimes you find your best snooker when you are put in that situation.”
NO SLOWING DOWN
In the first 19 years of his gilded professional career between 1992 until 2011, O’Sullivan lifted 11 of the Triple Crown events on terrestrial TV – three world titles, four Masters and four UKs. In the past eight years, he has carried off one every year raising his total to 20 with another three worlds, three Masters and three UKs. All this was achieved beyond the age of 35, a juncture where players are supposed to be married with kids and slowing down. O’Sullivan has never taken his eyes off the balls.
Nor has he slowed down. He is vying with the Thai speed merchant Un-Nooh as the sport’s fastest player with an average shot time under 18 seconds, mainly because his cue ball control is tighter than two coats of paint. His imaginative outlook has buffeted him from the ravages of time with his natural ambition to attack, even in safety exchanges, a key to his powers of endurance. When you consider he also sat out the 2012/13 season between his fourth and fifth world titles, this is a startling level of commitment and consistency.
Davis was on his last legs as a tournament winner when he won the 1997 Masters at the age of 39 with a 10-8 win over O’Sullivan while Hendry’s 36th and final ranking event came at the 2005 Malta Cup only weeks after turning 36. For Hendry and Davis, the hardest part was letting go as their dominance faltered.
O’Sullivan has revelled in punditry work for Eurosport over the past six years, analysis nicely book-ended by his world titles, but he knows where he gets his kicks.
O’Sullivan concedes being in the heat of the battle provides an inimitable rush that cannot be emulated by pills or thrills. For O’Sullivan, the action is the juice in a sport that titillates and torments him.
“I think every guy deserves to know what it feels like to have a 10-inch ****. I’ve probably had that feeling for quite a long time now. I think I’ve been fortunate in that area to experience that. When I’m buzzing on the snooker table, the sensation feels amazing.”
“By playing snooker, I feel like I’m the king of my castle,” says O’Sullivan, who toyed with the idea of appearing in Gwrych Castle in Wales in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here before opting for more meaningful stars at the UK Championship. “That’s the drug really, it’s not the money, it’s not the prestige, it’s just that feeling that I’ve got the best **** out of everybody else.”
AN EIGHTH UK TITLE?
His first major title came when he usurped the then unparalleled Hendry 10-6 to win his first UK Championship at the Guild Hall in Preston in November 1993 before washing up on This Morning with Richard and Judy the following day, such was the fascination with his attributes, audaciousness and speed of thought at such a tender age. For the record, the teenager fighting out of Chigwell also defeated Alan McManus, Ken Doherty, Steve Davis and Darren Morgan on his route to a celebrated victory 27 years ago. McManus – who became Masters winner only three months later in 1994 – describes O’Sullivan as “the most talented sportsman in the world” these days. Aged 17 years and 358 days, a star was born. O’Sullivan remains the youngest winner of a ranking event four decades on.
He will turn 45 a day before the UK Championship final concludes on 6 December, a match he will hope to contest as he pursues further garlands in the sport’s second most important ranking event. His campaign began with a quickfire 6-0 victory over Leo Fernandez which took little over an hour.
Why such an evergreen talent has never been nominated for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year is a tragic indictment on human powers of observation, but hope springs eternal this year. In the year of the pandemic, face muzzles and no fans, O’Sullivan has found himself in splendid isolation in his return to glory.
In the epic book Paradise Lost, John Milton concluded that it is “better to rule in hell than serve in heaven” or words to that effect. O’Sullivan will not notice his surroundings if he clasps an eighth UK title to his bosom at the Marshall Arena in MK, a venue he gloomily compares to potting in prison in Covid-19 times.
It should be pointed out that O’Sullivan seems to be in a wonderfully positive frame of mind playing frames. He has battled the black dog of depression, but snooker has provided a constant and a cathartic ally amid his travails which somehow saw him go three years without a ranking event win between the Shanghai Masters in September 2009 and the German Masters in February 2012. At that time, John Higgins even feared O’Sullivan was not far from retirement. How times have changed.
Professor Steve Peters – a specialist in sports psychiatry – continues to play a key role in helping O’Sullivan keep his mental compass pointing in the right direction. His victory at the World Championship was a triumph for mind over matter when you consider he trashed a Crucible dressing room in 2016 and was driven to a hospital in London for treatment after his win over David Gilbert in the first round.
“That’s why I always call it snooker depression because you can quickly go down this hole of searching for something and then forgetting,” he explains. “Your mental side goes and as Steve Peters says about your inner chimp, the chimp is running around Tesco. You wouldn’t want that chimpanzee running around Tesco would you? That’s what happens to a lot of snooker players. When their head is gone, they are like crazy animals. How do you manage that mind to think ‘Hold on, this is getting a bit out of hand now, I can’t behave like this, I need to draw it in’.”
The sometimes-tortured genius of O’Sullivan performs snooker rather than play it. He is a sculptor as much as a sportsman, perhaps blissfully unaware of the beauty of his craft, but the O’Sullivan Opus remains a work in progress. Will it ever be finished?
Snooker was his first love and may end up his last. The enduring fascination of O’Sullivan’s incompleteness will perhaps continue to endure long beyond a turbulent reign that has provided more mayhem and magic than the most manic of monarchies.
The old king is alive, long live the king.