And us, fans, won’t like this. However, let me remind you a few things. It’s not the first time that Ronnie wants to walk away from the sport, and one day of course he will. Maybe soon, maybe in years. When he said that he was retiring in 2012, he meant it. A few months later, he started missing it. His relationship with Worldsnooker has never been easy, the expectations and demands on him are extremely high, they have been for over 25 years. And the way this World Championship went hasn’t helped. The media making the biggest story of his defeat when he was clearly unwell hasn’t helped.
So this is how he feels for now. He’s not unhappy, he’s just out of love with the demands of professional snooker. For now at least it’s too much, he doesn’t want to have to cope with this. But he nevertheless said that he will play in Shanghai. My philosophy for now will be to enjoy him when he does play and just wait and see how things pan out from there.
The last sentence is the key to all this: Ronnie is all about the feelings, the emotions, and the moment. This is how he feels now. I a few weeks, or months? Who knows? He certainly does not.
Here is the interview:
Exclusive Ronnie O’Sullivan interview: ‘I don’t want to play in the World Championship next year, it’s overrated’
It is whilst eating a salad lunch, which appropriately contains some rocket, that Ronnie O’Sullivan casually slips in an announcement that would be genuinely seismic for his sport.
“This year I played 11 tournaments; next year I’m only going to have to play three,” he declares. “I only want to play a few games to keep a bit of interest. I’m bored at home. Maybe three or four tournaments a year. Low key ones, where there is no media and no press. So I will miss the Masters, I will miss the World Championship and I will miss the UK [Championship].
“I don’t even want to play in the World Championship – all the press and media they want you to do. I’m not here for that. It’s alright for young kids who have never won the world title and it’s their dream. To me it’s overrated. It’s great when you win it – a week later it sinks in. I’ve won it five times mate. It ain’t worth the blood, sweat and tears to me now. That tournament? Probably not for me anymore.”
A few minutes earlier and O’Sullivan had also been delivering me the most genuine, heartfelt and yet sometimes hilariously blunt nutritional advice.
“I bet you wanted the fish and chips, didn’t you? Listen mate, two months with Rhiannon, you’d lose a stone and a half. No. Two stones. Guaranteed. And you won’t be hungry. And you eat all the time. Get on it. I always had an issue with weight; I was a fatty ever since I was a kid. I once went from 16 stone to 12 stone in three months. I’ve had to work at it.”
Rhiannon Lambert has been O’Sullivan’s nutritionist for almost two years and one of the key explanations behind a snooker renaissance that, even allowing for last month’s Crucible aberration, has included 10 tournament wins, passing Stephen Hendry for a record-breaking 19 ‘grand slams’ titles, an unprecedented 1,000 century breaks and returning to the top of the world rankings at the age of 43.
It is what made last month’s first round exit at the World Championships such a shock. And, for all the previous threats to quit completely, it is what makes the timing of this suggestion that we might never again see him on snooker’s greatest stage feel significant.
O’Sullivan is happy, has never felt healthier and the buzz both from playing and entertaining when he is in full flight is certainly still there. “There is no drug on the planet that makes me feel like that,” he says. And yet what has evidently withered to breaking point is his relationship with snooker’s authorities.
“It’s like a broken marriage,” he says. “They don’t like me, I don’t really like them. We are living under the same roof. Just for the kids’ sake, we’ll stay together until they are out of education. Then I’m done, you’re done. We can crack on and get a little flat each. But if they want to overstep that mark and make my life too unhappy I’m off. You are going to lose out because I am not going to come to your tournaments. I’m going to lose out because really I want to play. So we’re just trying to be nice to each other – trying to tolerate each other.”
O’Sullivan has specifically grown weary of the disciplinary threat that has followed his criticism of venues, referees or tournament schedules, but the biggest issue seems to be off-table media demands to ‘sell’ the sport.
“The easiest way to explain it is Kimi Raikonnen,” he says. “He likes to race but he doesn’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to have to promote myself or the game. It’s not the reason I play. Me helping people in snooker is potting balls, having a 147. I don’t see it as necessary to stand there and talk about this opponent, that tournament, how I think the game went. I’m bored of that ****. I ain’t got nothing to say except let my snooker do the talking. I don’t want to work with people who just want to squeeze you and squeeze you until you break and you say, ‘I’m out’.”
If that all sounds rather dramatic, some context is important. O’Sullivan has always been candid about his various addictions, the mental health challenges that he has faced and the sometimes torturous toll that snooker takes. And yet still, when he did not attend a press conference after beating David Gilbert in the first round of the 2016 World Championship, World Snooker’s disciplinary statement about “a formal warning” for “breach of contract” was immediate.
It later transpired that O’Sullivan had suffered a mental breakdown, smashed up his cue, punched a wall and was in tears. He would spend four nights in the Nightingale Hospital in central London, a mental health clinic.
Lambert describes the pressures and demands on O’Sullivan as “insane” and says that the professional footballers with whom she also works “get looked after a lot better”. It’s an interesting point. Participants in team sports share out media demands and those who are not feeling up to it simply opt out. Some never speak to the media. There are times when you have to wonder about duty of care and if everyone would benefit from rather more flexibility. As it is, O’Sullivan feels antagonised and exploited and we can end up with the sort of press appearances when he clearly does not want to be there and so pretends to be a robot or puts on an Australian accent.
He says that he is now “detached” from the competitive side of snooker and smiles when asked what happened against James Cahill in Sheffield last month. “At the time I didn’t know,” he says. “I couldn’t stand, my legs were gone and I had to do 19 frames with this kid loving every minute. I looked doped up or something.
“A week later my mate rang me up and said, ‘I was in bed for three days’. I was like ‘thank god, you got it as well, that’s what it was’. Me and him had done something. It was a schoolboy error. We both got sick. If I’d got through that match I’d have been alright. But it’s only a bloody game isn’t it? It’s a snooker tournament at the end of the day.”
O’Sullivan does not want to elaborate and is adamant that Judd Trump’s performance in ultimately winning with such style has not stirred his competitive urge. “I’ve had to fight off five generations of player – I’ve nothing to prove,” he says. “People like Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry were different animals. Ruthless. I’m ruthless in the competition with myself. Hendry and Davis were all about winning. For me it’s the competition with myself. I don’t have to play anyone.
“If anything this would be the perfect time to cash in and do other stuff. But I’m not cashing in, I’ll only do things I’m passionate about. You won’t catch me on Strictly Come Dancing, you won’t catch me in the jungle, or jumping off a building for fun. You will see me doing cooking, talking about nutrition, health and fitness. I think that can help people. It’s about spending time and working with people who share the same philosophy.”
Lambert is one such person and together they have brought out a book, Top of Your Game, that combines recipes and nutritional advice with O’Sullivan’s wider outlook on life. So has healthy eating given him an advantage over his competitors? He shrugs.
“Not intentionally. I want to get out of the game and I’ve gone back to [world] number one. There are a lot of people on the snooker circuit who have never really taken care of themselves. Eat whatever they eat on the road. Never seen a gym. For them, sitting on a couch at home, watching Jeremy Kyle or whatever they watch, they might as well be in China sitting on the couch watching CBS news and potting a few balls. They don’t give a monkeys.
“Me, I think, ‘Travel, jet-lag, that’s eight days when I could be in the forest having a run, in the gym, cooking my own food’. That’s my value-system. Take care of myself first and then the job second. I think I’ve had longevity because I’ve been picky and choosy about what I do.”
O’Sullivan was 15 stones when he met Lambert despite regularly running and working out, but was soon down near 13 stones even while cutting back on exercise. More importantly, he felt more content and could concentrate for longer.
“Food affects everything,” says Lambert. “You can see the difference in his skin. The stuff he was eating was not beneficial internally. Portion sizes through the roof. You might be able to run a long distance but are your organs feeling good? What about your mental health?”
It is now all about eating a balanced diet within three meals and two snacks a day. Moderation was the first big lesson for O’Sullivan, who would previously gorge on McDonalds, several curries a day and then, when he was trying to be healthy, avocados and olives.
“I was in Bulgaria with Stephen Hendry. He looked at me and said, ‘How many olives have you eaten?’ I said, ‘I don’t know mate, let’s have a count up’. It was 29. So I said, ‘I’ll have one more. Round number. 30’. I was eating three or four avocados a day and thinking that I was doing really well. Now I have a template. It took me three months to get it. The right amounts are vital.
“People see these big plates now and it’s like, ‘feed me!’ It’s hard to wean yourself off but, over a two-month period, your stomach adjusts.” O’Sullivan started measuring food and can now instinctively judge what he should eat. “When you are out and they bring you a massive, ridiculous dinner, I now go, ‘Three meals there. Wicked. Divvy it up. That’s my protein, that’s my carbs, done. Put the rest in a bag and I’ll eat it later’. Previously I would be, ‘Christ. I’m not leaving that, I’ll have some of that’ and looking to finish everyone else’s.”
And does he allow himself treats? “Oh yeah,” he says. “If I’m out I might share a desert. ‘You chose and I’ll have two mouthfuls’. One, two, bosh, done. Now and then I’ll think I have earned it. Maybe a week at snooker, stressed and I’ll be, ‘That cakes’s getting it’ and I’ll have the lot, but you are not going to put on two stones if you do that once in a while.” Lambert advised O’Sullivan to prioritise his diet over intense exercise while he was adjusting and, although remaining active was important, it is another key nugget of advice.
“Listen, save your money on a gym or a ****ing personal trainer,” says O’Sullivan. “Get a nutritionist, see her once a month. Done. It’s more important than training. I hate to admit that because my whole life I thought you’ve got to be fit and train but you can’t out-train a bad diet. A gym is two hours out of your day. You can prep your food in 40 minutes.
“Some of these mainstream gyms are not gyms anyway mate. They are social clubs where parents drop off their kids. I go in there and I’m so uninspired. I go down a boxing club to train. Love it there.”
Talk of boxing prompts O’Sullivan to recall how he once met Roberto Duran and discovered that he was a massive snooker fan. He speaks with similar passion about other sporting heroes – Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi and Tiger Woods – but then looks almost embarrassed to have it pointed out that he actually transcends his sport in a comparable way. And that there are a fair few people who derive the exact same joy watching him that he clearly gets from these people.
“It’s a bit unfair to put it on me in a way but I have had 25 years of unbelievable support,” he says. “The rest of my career will be about the fans. I’ve got this resilience to come back but at some point it will be, ‘I can’t even do it for you now’. It scrapes a bit off each time and my sanity is more important. That’s why I’m enjoying doing this. Different vibe. I get more out of giving than taking.”
O’Sullivan then debunks the idea that he was simply born with outrageous talent. “To be good at anything you have got to have that obsessive nature,” he says. “I’ve seen people with more talent than me not make it. I’ve seen people with no talent win tournaments. Hard work always wins. Talent with hard work and you get your Lionel Messis. It doesn’t come easy to me but, when it does, it comes ridiculously easy: 30 per cent of the time it’s easy, 40 per cent is OK and the other 30 percent is like I’ve never played before. You have to keep working.
“And what I will always do is my exhibitions – 60 or 70 nights a year, any snooker fan who wants to can come and I promise I’ll be in practice and you will get a great performance. I wouldn’t want to spend my money and see someone do a **** performance. I’ll be a bit like Ken Dodd – on stage until the day he dies. He loved what he was doing. They loved what he did. He was not dealing anymore with ITV, BBC, corporate people saying, ‘You can’t do this or that’. When you perform really well you know there is a certain electricity in the air. You feed off that. They are giving it to you – I’m giving it to them. You get addicted. How do you say goodbye to that? How do you go, ‘I’ll just make a cup of tea and grow a few plants in the garden’. It’s only the highest level of performance that can give you that.
“There’s been games where I have not thought I have given punters value for money and the fans are, ‘Brilliant! Amazing!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Who has got it wrong here?’ That’s where Steve Peters (O’Sullivan’s psychiatrist) helps. He says, ‘Look at the facts, some great breaks and you won the tournament’.”
O’Sullivan then reaches for his phone. It is where he stores certain psychological reminders and sayings that help him. “I love this by Jade Johnson. ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings’. Brilliant.”
He then repeats it. “Facts don’t care about your feelings. It’s everything Steve Peters tries to teach me: ‘Look at the facts, five tournaments wins this season, two finals. The facts are the most important thing’.” And then O’Sullivan pauses before delivering perhaps the most perceptive observation of all. “But I’m going to get hurt all the time.” Why? “Because I’m ****ing all about the feelings.”