Saturday 21 April 2018

A player who is bigger than his game

O’Sullivan will be seeking a sixth title this year, which would put him one shy of Steven Hendry’s record. Photo:PA
O’Sullivan will be seeking a sixth title this year, which would put him one shy of Steven Hendry’s record. Photo:PA
Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

Ronnie O'Sullivan grows more rather than less fascinating with the years. Watching him demolish Barry Hawkins 10-1 in the Masters final it was easy to conclude yet again that he is the best snooker player there's ever been. It was the biggest margin of victory in a Masters final since Steve Davis beat Mike Hallett 9-0 in 1988, and Hawkins, who's made the last four at the last three World Championships, is no daw. At times it was hard to imagine anyone out there even giving O'Sullivan a game.

Yet less than a month ago O'Sullivan was getting knocked out of the qualifying section of the German Masters by Stuart Carrington, a player ranked 60th in the world whose best showing in a major tournament was reaching the third round of the UK Championship three years ago. And while O'Sullivan will start favourite to regain the world title he last held in 2013, it was only after winning the Masters that he confirmed that he'd be entering the championships, having been inactive since Stuart Bingham shocked him in last year's quarter-final.

It is easy to imagine O'Sullivan sweeping all before him in Sheffield. It's equally possible that the less mercurial attributes of Neil Robertson or Judd Trump might prevail or even, as a worst case scenario, that an out of sorts O'Sullivan could come a cropper against someone like Mark Allen or Stephen Maguire.

Perhaps our fascination with O'Sullivan stems from the fact that, more than any other big league sportsman, he always seems to be competing against himself, Good Ronnie and Bad Ronnie going up against each other like the 'love' and 'hate' tattooed on Robert Mitchum's knuckles in Night of the Hunter.

O'Sullivan will be seeking a sixth title this year, which would put him one shy of Steven Hendry's record, yet he has underachieved to a certain degree. You could even argue that he has had the potential to win every championship since making his initial breakthrough in 2001. Defeats like that in the 2005 semi-final against Peter Ebdon and the 2014 final against Mark Selby seemed to come about as much because of his inability to stay fully interested in the proceedings as because of anything his opponents were doing.

Yet it seems churlish to point this out when O'Sullivan in full flight is a Mozart of the game, a man who reveals just what is possible in his chosen field and does it with such ease and grace he makes it look deceptively simple. You often hear it said that no player is bigger than the game. But I'm not sure that's true in snooker. If O'Sullivan isn't bigger than the game, he is at least as big as it. For most people, the World Championships, maybe even the whole season, will be all about O'Sullivan and his battle with that part of himself which seems beguiled by the idea that his talent comes too easily to him and must be stymied by obstacles to prevent things becoming boring.

The days when snooker's top stars were household names have gone and in all likelihood will never come again. Take O'Sullivan out of it and its leading men have the bland and colourless appearance of the candidates standing on stage in some obscure English constituency on general election night. When he departs, as he often seems on the verge of doing, he will leave a large hole which swallows up a lot of what's left of snooker's audience.

For all the headache and hassles he's caused them, snooker's authorities must know that what they badly need is another Ronnie O'Sullivan. Another Jimmy White and Alex Higgins would come in handy too. But there are no candidates on the horizon. Youth seems to be misspent differently these days.

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