Ronnie O’Sullivan lifted the Betfair World Championship trophy for a fifth time last night after banishing his demons to secure Crucible glory.
After going into self-imposed exile from snooker for almost a year, O’Sullivan rolled up in Sheffield without any competitive match practice and proceeded to tear through the draw, culminating in an 18-12 triumph against surprise finalist Barry Hawkins.
Hawkins, the 34-year-old world No 14 from Kent, emerged from their tussle with huge credit, having performed terrifically well. It was comfortably the biggest match of his life and he met the challenge head on. His reward was £125,000, more than treble the size of his previous highest pay cheque, and the respect of his opponent and the watching millions.
But O’Sullivan majestically took the title, becoming the first man to successfully defend the world title since Stephen Hendry in 1996.
He did so in record-breaking style, his six centuries one more than any player has managed before in a World Championship final, and with his career total of three-figure Crucible breaks now at 131, four ahead of former front-runner Hendry’s haul.
“You have to face your demons during this tournament and that’s why it’s such a hard tournament to win,” O’Sullivan said. “In the final I had everything to lose and nothing to gain. People said it would be a procession, but everyone on the snooker circuit knows what a good player Barry is.”
O’Sullivan has threatened to retire before next year’s tournament, but a fresh hint that he could be back to challenge again in 12 months’ time emerged within minutes of him hoisting the trophy aloft. “One good thing this tournament has done is get me a wild card into the Masters,” O’Sullivan said. “In many respects it’s given me the chance to rebuild if I want to.”
Pressed on whether he would return to defend his title, O’Sullivan added: “I can’t say that I am, because I had my year out and enjoyed my year out.
“I intend to play in some small events. Come December or January I’ll have a better idea of what I’m going to do.
“Now I’ve got to enjoy one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done, retaining the World Championship title.
“I’m well equipped to win more titles but it’s not easy. There were times in this tournament when parts of my game weren’t great. But I managed to play my way through the tournament and get stronger and stronger. I was able to manage my emotions and my mind better than I ever have done and that got me through.”
He finished with a brilliant 86, and just like last year brought his son, Ronnie Jr, out to share in the celebrations.
Should O’Sullivan retire, he would be quitting at the peak of his powers. On this evidence he is irreplaceable and the sport’s authorities, headed by World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn, must be desperate to keep him in the game.
Following breaks of 103, 106, 113 and 100 on Sunday, O’Sullivan ploughed in 133 and 124 yesterday.
Only Mark Selby has made six centuries before in Sheffield, in a second-round match against Hendry two years ago.
The record for a world final previously stood at five, shared by John Higgins, Matthew Stevens and Hendry.
In the audience for the closing day were the actor and presenter Stephen Fry, who once labelled the champion “the Mozart of snooker”, together with O’Sullivan’s artist friend Damien Hirst and 16-time world darts champion Phil Taylor.
Hawkins made two centuries in the match, so to lose was hard to swallow. He said: “I’m a bit gutted straight after the defeat but if someone told me I’d get to the final I’d have ripped their arm off. Once you get there you want to win the title but you can’t come up against anyone tougher than that. There’s no shame in losing to him 18-12.
“I just missed a couple of balls here and there. He responded with big break after big break and that’s why he’s won five world titles. To do what he has just done there is unbelievable after a year out.”
O’Sullivan could chase Stephen Hendry’s haul of seven titles if he fancied it, and Hawkins said: “If he wants it he could definitely do it. Obviously I’ll be trying to stop him. It’s good for the game if he stays in it.”
World champion in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012, the way O’Sullivan carved a route this time, casting aside Marcus Campbell, Ali Carter, Stuart Bingham and Judd Trump, has perfectly exhibited the staggering natural ability that puts him head and shoulders above his rivals when in the mood. On the table, O’Sullivan has been mentally pinpoint sharp over the 17 days. His thanks go to Dr Steve Peters, the sports psychiatrist, for that.
Off it, he has personal issues that prompted his talk of quitting. He says he returned to the sport only to pay school fees.
But after the early scattering of a host of leading seeds, this World Championship could have been a damp squib without O’Sullivan.
As it turned out, it provided one of the great tales of The Crucible, scripted by a genius.