Sunday 18 February 2018

Snooker: Need for the next high brings Rocket crashing down

Tommy Conlon

L ast Monday, the Rocket man found himself back in that special place where he lives on his own and where no one else can reach him no matter how hard they try.

He is untouchable there, at peace with himself and at one with his work. And it is here he touches that state of perfection which, the rest of the time, maddens and frustrates him in its elusiveness.

It doesn't exist, except in his mind, this nirvana where his control of the balls can be complete; but when he is alone in that room he comes closer to it than any master cue man ever has in the history of their beautiful game.

But Ronnie O'Sullivan is 34 now and the visits to his own sea of tranquility are becoming more sporadic. He made it back there however in the final session of his match with Mark Williams and produced a torrent of breathtaking shots that led to three centuries and four wins in five frames. It was the World Championships in that compression chamber they call the Crucible Theatre but he could've been back in his own living room for all it showed.

The business of stripping a snooker table, ball by ball until it is naked, is an exercise in ultra-finesse; it requires motor skills of such refinement that it should be on the curriculum for aspiring medical surgeons. When O'Sullivan's concentration is in this blissful state, it appears as if he's not forcing the process at all but, rather, simply allowing the process to flow through him.

As he stalked the table last Monday with such ridiculous ease, it seemed that he was deconstructing not just another pack of reds, but the very game itself. And yet people have become blasé about him; they barely notice any more when he swaps the cue into his left hand and carries on regardless. Considered unthinkable ten years ago, the Rocket has made it routine.

It's been said before, it needs to be said again: Ronnie O'Sullivan is one of the few genius-sportsmen of this age.

But, inevitably, having beaten Williams with that bravura performance, he marched into the post-match press conference to tell the world how badly he was playing and feeling. O'Sullivan has spent his career beating himself up when he's not beating up opponents.

His well-documented mood swings, depression and ongoing turbulence over his father's imprisonment have contrived to make for a volatile talent, and unpredictable form. The next generation of players is inching closer to the standard he has set in terms of potting and break-building; and they know that if they are mentally strong enough, they can get to him. They are no longer intimidated.

Mark Selby is one such player. In the final of the Welsh Open in 2008, Selby came from 5-8 down to win 9-8. In the final of the Masters last January, he came from 6-9 down to win 10-9. On each occasion he took the last four frames to beat O'Sullivan. And he did it again in the quarter-final on Wednesday night, coming from 9-11 down to win 13-11.

There had been a bit of needle between the players in recent seasons. "I don't think he likes people competing with him," said Selby after his win on Wednesday, "and that's what I seemed to do today and yesterday. And that's probably why he don't really speak to me as much as what he does with the others."

O'Sullivan at times in that match had looked imperious and led 9-5 at one stage. But Selby gradually turned the tide and eventually turned the screw. In the 24th frame, O'Sullivan was on a break of 42 and looking good to take the match to a deciding showdown.

But he twitched on a red -- and twitched badly. Willie Thorne in the commentary box recognised the symptoms. "Well, that was another sign of tension. We rarely see it in O'Sullivan but sometimes the pressure gets too much."

The next morning, Steve Davis, shrewd as ever, made some acute psychological observations. And what he said hinted at something that hasn't been fully appreciated: just because O'Sullivan makes it

look so easy doesn't mean it is easy. He probably feels the burden of being labelled a genius more than we know.

"There is more tension in Ronnie than perhaps sometimes you think there is," said Davis. And after losing to Selby, he looked less stressed in his post-match interview than he did after beating Williams. "His face looked as if he was relieved, his face looked relaxed. Previous rounds, when he was still in the tournament, he looked uptight -- because there's a job to be done, you're under pressure. And you're under pressure as one of the favourites to win, and it's very, very hard on players and they all deal with it in different ways. But that was Ronnie smiling, a genuine smile that he hadn't smiled earlier -- because it was over, problem solved."

He didn't look like he had a care in the world as he sank ball after ball in those final frames against Williams. The game is "like a drug", he said in that same interview to which Davis referred: can't live with it, can't live without it. But when he's in that special place and touching perfection, we'd imagine that, despite everything, there's no place else he'd rather be.

Sunday Independent

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