Saturday 24 June 2017

O’Sullivan the renegade looking for a life beyond the baize

Ronnie O’Sullivan begins the defence of his UK Masters title tomorrow. Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images
Ronnie O’Sullivan begins the defence of his UK Masters title tomorrow. Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Oliver Brown

The renegade looking for a life beyond the baize A Tibetan orphanage...politics...there's more to life than snooker confides Ronnie O'Sullivan as he prepares to defend his Masters title

Ronnie O'Sullivan is looking, to be blunt, like something the cat has dragged in. And then dragged out again. Eyes heavy-lidded, face wreathed in five o'clock shadow, he plants his boots on the table in front of him and does his level best to act like the Essex equivalent of James Dean.

The night before, he was involved in a legends' match in Dublin - not exactly an abstemious evening, by all accounts - and the subsequent 6am flight to London seems briefly to have drained his spirit. Especially when he finds himself here, at a faceless snooker hall on a Romford industrial estate, where drizzle patters against the windows.

"Look out there," he says, morosely. "P****** down with rain, freezing cold, s*** food all around the gaff. I might as well go to China." O'Sullivan enjoys China. Which seems curious in itself, given that his best-known performance in the country was to sabotage a press conference by simulating an unspeakable act with a microphone. Now, though, he is quite the Sinophile, recounting with pride how he ate a bull's genitals at a street market. He also discloses that he has started working on behalf of Tibetan orphans for the Soong Ching Ling Foundation.

"Going to that orphanage was one of the best days of my life," he reflects, brightening. "These kids had nothing before, no hope. They call their teacher the boss, he is like a father to them. It just took your breath away, and I came away feeling alive. I am open to these things now. This is what is important to me, not sitting in here driving myself mad, getting depressed because I can't pot a f****** ball."

The 41-year-old O'Sullivan remains a bewildering bundle of contradictions. One overarching theme, though, is that he finally appreciates there is more to life than snooker. By degrees, the one-man O'Sullivan industry is diversifying, first into travel documentaries - his series 'American Hustle', capturing the US pool scene in all its rawness, is released later this month - and also, in a move that would once have been unthinkable, into TV punditry on his fellow players.

"I was unhappy before, just practising," he says. "But it was all I knew. I was scared to break out. Doing all this other stuff, I have started coming out of myself. Snooker's the bit I don't really like."

When it comes to threats, veiled or otherwise, about walking away, O'Sullivan cannot help himself. His bargaining chip, which he employs regularly and with a certain relish, is that he needs snooker far less than it needs him.

Does he ever feel lonely at the practice table? "Horrible, yeah." So, would he ever consider training with a partner? "Nah, I'd rather just do a couple of hours on my own, have a cup of tea. I don't want to go back to the snooker clubs, where everyone's shouting, 'Ronnie, Ronnie!' They'd drive you mad. I can't be bothered."

Sometimes, he concedes, he even looks forward to losing a match. "I think, 'Sweet, I can get in the commentary box now'." As ever, there is an element of shock value to such statements. He has evolved, at least in part due to the scars left by his father's imprisonment for murder, into a compellingly extreme personality. He is the type of character who craves a change of scene just to stop himself veering off the rails. In 2013, for example, he spent a sabbatical working on an urban farm. Plus, he discovered running, recording a 34-minute time for 10km.

The problem was that he pursued it with such crazed intensity that he damaged ligaments and broke a foot. For all that he blithely vows to give snooker only 20 per cent of his time, there is an area of his psyche that is resolutely all-or-nothing.

Take politics. O'Sullivan, a Labour supporter, is recalling the day in 2015 when he went out on the campaign trail with Ed Miliband. But this soon gives way to a passionate soliloquy about the wealth gap, corporate excess, and Eastern European uprisings.

"With Ed, I went to a mining club for a snooker game. There were proper, working-class people, and I could relate to them. I can't relate to a bunch of bankers sitting there, drinking wine and splashing money like it's going out of fashion. It's obscene, it makes me feel sick.

"My parents worked hard and got up the ladder. In the 1980s, you could do that. But since they took away the unions, people are f*****, basically. They have nowhere to go. The more you crush someone, the less hope they've got. They become numb, they give up. You kill them so much they think, 'F*** this, we can't win'. Not enough people stand together like they did in Ukraine, with the revolution there. They thought, 'Our lives are so s*** that we are going to see it through, no matter what. At some point, it might happen here."

O'Sullivan then mounts a full-frontal assault on his own sport's inequities. It is one sure to make Barry Hearn, the chairman of World Snooker, bristle.

"There's no trickle-down," he argues. "All the top players get everything and those at the bottom are in poverty. In snooker, a lot can't afford a pair of trainers for their kid. Then you see board members flying business class, drinking red wine, schmoozing, wearing nice suits, saying they are doing wonderful things for the game."

It seems certain that O'Sullivan will continue to confound. He is fiercely anti-establishment and yet delighted in receiving his OBE. It is easiest, perhaps, to accept him for what he is. He is the one true genius, the one true renegade, that a sport can hardly bear to live without. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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