Back to a game he can't live with and can't live without
Twelve months ago he won his fourth world title and then, for the next 11 months, more or less disappeared from snooker.
The Rocket went underground. A lot of fans were asking the same question: Where's Ronnie? What's he doing? Has he retired? Any sign of him?
He re-surfaced just weeks before this year's tournament began. So, to fill in the blanks, the BBC pre-recorded an interview with him that went out on the opening afternoon at the Crucible 15 days ago. Hazel Irvine introduced the segment but didn't provide much context or background. The viewer was dropped into the middle of O'Sullivan's narrative about the forest and the farm.
"The idea of working on the farm," he explained, "was that it was in the forest that I used to run in. So I thought, 'I'll get to the farm at half eight in the morning, I'll do my run for an hour or whatever, come back, dry off and help out on the farm!' Cos that was the only way it was gonna get me to the forest at half past eight. I didn't want to work on the farm. I just picked the job that got me to the forest. So, you know, it was the farm."
Right. But after a while the farm didn't work out and he still needed to have something to get up for in the morning. He was looking to do other stuff, anything but snooker, but that didn't work out either. So it was back to the game that he can't live with, and can't live without.
"I got a bit scared, to be honest with you, and I just thought, 'you know what, if I leave snooker for much longer, the opportunity to go back might not be there.' So I kinda came back to snooker with the mind of, 'I'm still looking for something (else)', but I won't take that blind-faith leap and totally disregard snooker."
So he started practising again and the last two months had been good. It had got him out of the house. "I've had something to feel good about, I've had a little bit of purpose in my life, my self-esteem has come back."
But while he'd been away the snooker calendar had been revamped and the other professionals were clocking up huge numbers of hours in competitive match play. A few had played over 90 matches. O'Sullivan had played one all season. His opponent in the quarter-final last week, Stuart Bingham, had played 78.
Everyone who'd wondered about the Rocket's ring-rust after his long hiatus got their answer over the last fortnight. He'd been devastating, like he'd never been away. Towards the end of his second session with Bingham last Wednesday afternoon, he was leading 12-1 in the first to 13.
John Parrott and Stephen Hendry were on commentary during the first session. Leading 4-0 in frames, O'Sullivan was again at the table in frame five – and the referee was again busy counting.
Parrott: "I can't tell you how hard this game is, and I can't tell you how easy he makes it look."
"Yeah," replied Hendry, "I keep hearing about how the standards are going up amongst the top players."
"35." "But he plays snooker that . . ."
". . . no other top player can get close to I'm afraid."
"Is there anyone out there that wants to take up the mantle?"
"Well, it's like shelling peas," said Parrott, "it really is."
"54." "55." "60." "62." "65."
"You can't get snooker played any better than this," said Hendry.
Parrott: "Absolute class."
"This is as good as it gets, folks. You're watching something very special.
"87, and the frame, Ronnie O'Sullivan."
Loud applause around the Crucible as the Rocket nonchalantly returned to his chair. "Snooker," concluded Parrott, "from the gods."
Shortly after he'd despatched a shell-shocked Bingham on Wednesday evening, Ronnie indulged in one of his periodic episodes of self-sabotage. He'd only come back, he said in a post-match interview, because he was
struggling for cash. This was presumably a reference in part to the bitter and expensive custody battle he'd fought with his former partner over their two children. "I've not really missed snooker (in the year I've been away). Really I just came back cos I needed a bit of money to pay the school fees. And just to see if it was going to be any different – and it isn't."
In that same BBC interview he was practically inviting his rivals to put him out of his misery. "Why is there no one out there saying 'No, I'm the new guv'nor, I'm the new daddy, his time is over.'? There (is) no one out there with the guts and the balls to (do it). I mean, come on, I haven't played for a year."
Judd Trump fancied his chances in the semi-final. A cocky young gunslinger, he reckoned before the match that he was one of the few players with the audacity "to scare" the Rocket. On Thursday, Friday and again yesterday he threw his best shots but in the end was duly carried out of the ring too.
Today O'Sullivan stands on the brink of a fifth world title. He has broken all the rules. He is the coolest, the most stylish, the greatest.
Who knows what he'll do next. But he probably won't be going back to the farm.