Ronnie O’Sullivan admits that he is running out of time as he closes in on matching Stephen Hendry’s magnificent seven tally of world championship crowns.
Defending his title, O’Sullivan heads into the Dafabet World Championship as a five-time winner of snooker’s blue-riband event, two short of Hendry’s modern-era record. The 38-year-old will be aiming to complete a run of three consecutive world titles over the 17-day endurance test, having been champion in 2012 and 2013, mindful that since the tournament moved to the Crucible in 1977 only Hendry and Steve Davis have achieved such a hat-trick.
O’Sullivan begins today with what should be a straightforward opening assignment against Finland’s Robin Hull, the world No 122.
Given Hull beat Peter Ebdon in the final qualifying round, O’Sullivan will not take the task lightly, but the title favourite has not lost in the first round in Sheffield since 2003. Were that sequence to end on the opening day of the tournament, it would provide a sensation comparable to Tony Knowles’ 10-1 demolition of defending champion Davis in 1982.
O’Sullivan might be often portrayed as snooker’s greatest ever player, but he balks at that judgment, reasoning he does not have the Crucible record to stand up to Hendry, and he wonders if he ever will. “I’m not saying it can’t happen because you never know. But I don’t want to put unrealistic targets on myself, or unnecessary pressure. I want to be happy with what I’ve achieved while striving to win another,” O’Sullivan said.
“I can’t expect to win another three going into my 40s when nobody has won more than one beyond the age of 31 over the past 40 years, apart from me and John Higgins. It would be stupid of me to set myself high targets that nobody has achieved in the history of the sport. For me, it is about enjoying as many World Championships as I can play in. I think you would have to equal Hendry’s record to be classified as the greatest of all time. I can’t put myself in that league just yet. I’m happy that I’ve won it five times over a 13-year period.”
O’Sullivan added: “To be the greatest, I think anyone would have to win seven. I’d like to win one in my 40s. But to win two or three from now, is asking a lot of myself.”
Two world champions who won once at the Crucible and have yet to repeat the feat begin their latest tilts today, as Ken Doherty and Shaun Murphy get started. Doherty, a qualifier this year, takes on Stuart Bingham, while Murphy tackles Jamie Cope and could be a quarter-final opponent for O’Sullivan.
China’s great hope Ding Junhui, who has won five major ranking titles this season to match a record set by Hendry in 1990-91, launches his bid for a first world title against qualifier Michael Wasley tomorrow, while Mark Selby, a perennial contender, must wait until Monday before his match against Michael White begins.
Selby complained of burnout on losing in the second round to eventual runner-up Barry Hawkins last year, as the pressure of chasing the final leg of snooker’s Triple Crown – UK Championship, Masters and World Championship – became overwhelming. The 30-year-old Leicester potter lacks such trophies this season but reasons he is better placed to carry off the title. Selby said: “The limelight is not on me this year like it was last, when I went into it as UK and Masters champion, going for the treble. I was rightly down as one of the favourites and that probably played on me, I went into it saying to myself: ‘I have to get to the semis at least’.
“But I haven’t got as much to prove this year and the focus won’t be on me as much, so maybe I can slip though unnoticed!”
He added on his blog: “I believe I’m capable of winning it. I’m a better player than I was when I reached the final in 2007. I had nothing to lose then, now I’ve won a few titles, I’ve been world number one, I’m used to the hype on me and being one of the favourites. I believe I will win the World Championship, it’s just a matter of when. Hopefully this is the year.”
A strong Scots contingent includes John Higgins, Stephen Maguire, Jamie Burnett and Alan McManus.