Ronnie O’Sullivan is 42 years old yet ageless. The grey flecks about his head have no purchase on his talent, which, given five ranking title victories already this season, might even be delivering better snooker than ever. Imagine that.
O’Sullivan, a meld of instinct and Pythagorean understanding of 22 balls on a table, touches heights rarely glimpsed in the history of snooker. Oh yes, there have been great players, exemplary technicians such as Mark Selby, John Higgins, Shaun Murphy, the Steves – Davis and Hendry – Ray Reardon, John Spencer, and all the way back to Fred and Joe Davies, but none compelled the eye like Ronnie O, not even the turbulent Alex Higgins or that “wizard of the baize” Jimmy White.
A sixth ranking win in the same season would set a record, yet he arrives in Sheffield for the 84th World Snooker Championship on the back of a first-round defeat at the China Open, a match in which he logged the 14th tournament maximum of his career.
Is there anything more typical of O’Sullivan’s chaotic complexity than the coupling of defeat with a 147? In the tournament before that – the 2018 Players Championship – he beat en route to the title the man who would be him, the talismanic leftie Judd Trump. It was as close as you would hope, but O’Sullivan in this mature, less ragged phase of his career, contained the urge to score quickly within a framework of devastating table management.
As far as I can tell, O’Sullivan is the only snooker player to make the pages of the New Yorker, the highbrow magazine that keeps the Manhattan intelligentsia abreast of current affairs.
Where does our Ronnie fit into that tableau, I hear you ask? He is the left-field intruder episodically deemed worthy of big words, the mesmeric oddball from the world of sport, a gift so good or weird as to be considered interesting. They like that kind of stuff.
You can file him in the same bracket as Mike Tyson, Dennis Rodman, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Tiger Woods, and sundry Super Bowl quarterbacks. Five world titles, 33 ranking tournament wins are the bones of it. But that does not move the New Yorker needle.
Interest in O’Sullivan is not simply about his obvious skill at the table, but the backstory, the relationship with a father who traded in the West End sex industry and was incarcerated for murder, the sum of human life represented in his person, the hope, the fear, the panic, the highs, the lows, the despair, the elation.
At various points in his 26-year career – he turned pro at just 16 – O’Sullivan has lived all those emotions right in front of us, both at the table and sitting in the chair.
The mesmeric snooker is utterly absorbing, the way he glides about the table, potting off either hand, pockets swallowing balls as smoothly as Guinness.
But equally powerful are the meditations in the chair, which are particularly hard to watch when he is not at peace.
O’Sullivan has talked openly about depression, about coping strategies, about the importance of running to help quieten his mind. But even that, miles on miles every day, might be seen as one more manifestation of the troubled intensity through which he experiences life. The memory burned into my synapses was the quarter-final with Peter Ebdon 13 years ago. O’Sullivan was the defending champion, notionally peaking at 29 years old. He was 8-2 up after strolling through the morning session. First to 13 wins. What could be better? Yet all was not well. The signs were there in the shaven head, his hair summarily removed because he wasn’t happy with the way he looked. This was his testimony after his first-round win: “It’s a drug for 17 days. It’s a drug for the week, here and there. But for the amount of buzzes that you get out of it, I know they never last.
“The two times I’ve won this title [2001, 2004], while I was doing it, yeah, it was great. The people, the adulation and all that was fantastic. But two hours later I just sat down and I thought, ‘Well, is this it?’ It is a fantastic buzz but there is a price to pay for that and the price that I have paid this year has been far too heavy on me. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
O’Sullivan would claim only three more frames against Ebdon, losing seven of eight in the final session as the oil burned towards midnight. The sight of him picking unconsciously at his head with frenzy in his fingers and eyes blank, was as disturbing as any I have witnessed in 25 years covering sport.
Thirteen years on, he moves among us in better shape and with three more world titles to his name, the last of which came five years ago. Is this the year he claims a sixth, moving within one of Hendry’s modern-era benchmark?
That’s the problem, with O’Sullivan, you never bloody know. Defending champion Selby is first up in the morning session against Joe Perry. O’Sullivan is in the house in the afternoon against Mark McGuire.
See you in the queue.