Ronnie O’Sullivan will today be celebrated as a returning hero when he begins the defence of his Betfair World Championship title, but snooker ringmaster Barry Hearn has told him: “You’re not saving anything.”
Hearn, the chairman and majority shareholder of World Snooker, is determined to stress that O’Sullivan has not been mollycoddled this season. It has been a campaign in which O’Sullivan has played just one low-profile match and made two major announcements: the first in November that he would be taking a hiatus and skipping the rest of the season, and the second in February that he would be ending that break from the sport to play at the Crucible.
Many of O’Sullivan’s fellow players had already anticipated his return, and there can be no doubting his participation lifts the profile of the World Championship, and gives Hearn some welcome room for manoeuvre in negotiating commercial deals for snooker.
Asked whether he had indulged O’Sullivan, Hearn lifted the lid on the discussions he held with the 37-year-old. “The conversation between us was, ‘No pressure, don’t play’,” Hearn said. “As I said to him at the first meeting, ‘Ronnie, our ratings are up, our ticket sales are up without you, so there’s no pressure on you to come back. You’re not saving anything. We’re in a good place. We’re not putting you under pressure. I want you to do what you are happiest to do, because the last thing I want is any problems or discipline, because we’ve been through all that’.
“The last few weeks has been the first time I’ve actually seen a little bit of sparkle and I’ve seen a little bit of what Ronnie was always like. That pleases me because I know he’s happy and actually it’s beneficial because when he’s happy he usually produces some amazing entertainment.”
O’Sullivan starts against Scotland’s Marcus Campbell in the first round today, playing a man who beat Peter Ebdon and Graeme Dott to reach the China Open quarter-finals last month and who only last weekend came through a final qualifying round match to clinch his place in Sheffield.
World No 1 Mark Selby added: “When Ronnie does play in a tournament it gives so much to the game. With it being the World Championship, it’s great to have him back in it.”
10am & 7pm: R O’Sullivan (Eng) v M Campbell (Sco), R Walden (Eng) v M Holt (Eng); 2.30pm: S Murphy (Eng) v M Gould (Eng), B Hawkins (Eng) v J Lisowski (Eng).