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Ronnie O'Sullivan: 30 years of greatness

Greatness in sport is typically measured by either the peak of a sportsperson’s career or its longevity.

In Ronnie O’Sullivan’s case, it’s both.

The 1980s belonged to Steve Davis. The 1990s belonged to Stephen Hendry. The 2000s, 2010s and the first half of the 2020s have all belonged to Ronnie O’Sullivan. 

While O’Sullivan has shared his era with the likes of Mark Selby as well as fellow Class of ’92 members Mark Williams and John Higgins, he’s remained an omnipresent figure at the Crucible with 31 straight appearances since his debut in 1993, where his record reads 100 matches, 74 wins, 26 losses and includes a 14-match winning streak between 2012 and 2014.

His talent was apparent long before his first UK Championship win as a 17-year-old back in 1993 – making his first century break as a 10-year-old – but it would take Ronnie the best part of a decade of ups and downs to conquer the world.

One of those downs is what made O’Sullivan’s maiden Triple Crown win all the more remarkable. Not just that he was 17, but that he’d lost his father the year before to a life prison sentence. The man who told anyone who’d listen that his boy would be a world champion, the man who’d served as O’Sullivan’s guide and mentor on the baize would no longer be by his side. In 1996, O’Sullivan would lose his mum for a year to prison, which is when he acknowledges he went off the rails, taking him around six years to get himself back on track.

O’Sullivan has never hidden his struggles from the public: shaving his head partway through a tournament, sitting with a towel draped over his face, but in The Edge of Everything, the recent documentary focussing on O’Sullivan, we see first-hand the tortured genius O'Sullivan has long been presented as. We see the discussions with his psychiatrist and the frantic panic as his 12-5 lead in the 2022 World Championship final gets eroded to the more precarious 13-10 before eventually calming himself down to win a record-equalling seventh world crown. 

Comedian Mel Brooks famously once said that “tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” In snooker terms, tragedy is when Ronnie O’Sullivan is below his best and loses a match; comedy is when he misses a ball and withdraws from a tournament mid-match. For better or for worse, people came to expect the spectacular from O’Sullivan, and for better or for worse, O’Sullivan has rarely been boring.

Of course, it’s what has always made O’Sullivan all the more encapsulating – his combustible, unpredictable nature. He calmed down in his later years, but for the first 15 years or so of his career, you never knew what O’Sullivan was going to do on the baize (or, indeed, off it); you could almost hear the murmurs: “Get ready, everybody; he’s about to do something [insert adjective here],” and the adjective could be anything: brilliant, deflating, hilarious, bewildering.

At the 1996 World Championship, O’Sullivan played a frame against Alain Robidoux with his ostensibly weaker left hand. Robidoux refused to shake O’Sullivan’s hand afterwards. Whether it was boredom, disrespect or O’Sullivan just trying to humour himself, it made headlines, more so with his comments after that Robidoux didn’t deserve his respect and that he was better with his left hand than Robidoux was with his right.

The following year at the same tournament, O’Sullivan would break another record, and one that is unlikely to ever be broken. 

Maximum breaks typically take 10-15 minutes, but The Rocket flew around the table, compiling a 147 in five minutes and eight seconds. It was 36 pots at an average of 8.5 seconds per pot – less time than it probably took to read this paragraph. In true O’Sullivan fashion, he’d later chastise himself for being out of position so often during that break.

Despite reaching a third straight Masters final earlier that year, and winning a second UK Championship at the end of the year, it would be a little while longer before O’Sullivan developed the mental fortitude to tough out a fortnight at the Crucible.

O’Sullivan was much more at home as a native at the Masters, be it at Wembley or Alexandra Palace. In his first five years as a pro, he’d reach three Masters finals, winning one UK Championship final – on debut – but had only reached one Worlds semi-final. 

By the turn of the century, O’Sullivan was battling addiction and mental health issues that threatened to derail his career and in 2000, O’Sullivan checked himself into rehab.

His stint away from the game seemed to work wonders, and in 18 months from December 2000 to April 2002, O’Sullivan reached a fourth UK Championship semi, winning a third title the year after, as well as winning a first World Championship and reaching a fifth semi the year after. O’Sullivan was officially recognised as the world’s number one player and would win a second world title in 2004. 

The Rocket seemed to have his demons in the rear-view mirror, but the worst was yet to come, with O’Sullivan struggling with life away from the game.

In 2005, O’Sullivan looked to be cruising to another World Championship semi-final, 8-2 up in a first-to-13 match against Peter Ebdon, but with Ebdon launching a comeback, O’Sullivan was being ground down.

Ebdon’s biggest strength – his ability to make a contest ugly, wear down his opponent and grind out a win – was O’Sullivan’s kryptonite. O’Sullivan was a purist who just wanted to play, armed with a peashooter for a gunfight and was displaying increasingly erratic behaviour. He stood on Ebdon’s chair to get a view of the table and had his head in his hands at the length of time it took Ebdon to compile a break of 12 – indeed, so did most viewers. He’d even ask a member of the audience for the time, so long were proceedings taking.

O’Sullivan’s unforgettable record-breaking maximum took five minutes and eight seconds; Ebdon’s 12 took nearly six minutes. When Ebdon broke down and returned to his seat, Ronnie refused to leave his, staring at his opponent with sheer incredulity. O’Sullivan would later sit with his head in his hands, eyes closed, unable to watch what was unfolding in front of him, later playing on when needing 10 snookers.

O’Sullivan crashed out and cited his ongoing battle with depression, threatening – not for the first or last time – to retire from the game.

It’s one of many things that adds to O’Sullivan’s legend. Yes, he’s universally accepted as the most talented player to pick up a cue, but as the old adage goes, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard, and, boy, has he had to work.

At the 2006 UK Championship, 18 months on from his gruelling defeat at the Crucible, O’Sullivan’s turmoil reached a new level. 

O’Sullivan was 4-0 down to Hendry in the quarter-final, stopping the rot to take the fifth frame, but breaking down on 24 in the sixth, O’Sullivan shook his opponent’s hand and walked out, citing that he’d ‘had enough’. Even by O’Sullivan’s standards, this was bizarre in the extreme, but he’d later reflect that he wasn’t in the right headspace to play, and opted to preserve his wellbeing.

Often, many of O’Sullivan’s comments and actions are met with an eye-roll – when he annihilates an opponent, reeling off century breaks and says he wasn’t playing that well; when he pots the pink instead of black to deny the world the chance to see a 147, but his struggles are well documented, and few sports take such a severe mental toll as snooker.

There are no team-mates to support you, and you can often be denied the opportunity to even partake in the game. If a player throws a 180 in darts, you can throw a 180. If a player makes a birdie in golf, you can make a birdie. 

But in snooker, if a player is potting balls, you’ve just got to sit there in silence and watch. It’s not uncommon to spend an hour without potting a single ball, and then suddenly be presented with a chance and have to find your A-game at the drop of a hat.

Remarkably, O‘Sullivan picked himself up off the canvas to win the Masters for a third time just a month later, then claiming a fourth UK Championship at the end of the year. O’Sullivan would win a third world title in 2008, but it wasn’t until his work with psychiatrist Steve Peters after two underwhelming seasons that O’Sullivan arguably peaked.

When O’Sullivan was at his best, snooker became effortless, floating around the table, hoovering up balls with pockets offering no resistance, akin to playing Hungry Hippos on a see-saw. In 2012, O’Sullivan won another world title before taking an extended leave from the game. He returned to the Crucible after a year away and played the best snooker of his life. O’Sullivan won back-to-back world titles without losing a single session in what he’s always described as his least favourite tournament. It remains perhaps the greatest achievement in snooker.

O’Sullivan’s love-hate relationship with the game is long documented; it’s a sport he’s spent much of his life obsessed with, trying to perfect the imperfectible, to conquer the unconquerable, but one of his many criticisms of the game is his opinion that it’s detrimental to the health and development of young people, spending many an hour alone in dark practice rooms.

But it’s one of the many reasons O’Sullivan is as great as he is. The elite of any sport will likely spend several hours every day practising and training, and it’s often not to get any better – after all, they’re already the elite. Phil Taylor didn’t spend hours on the practice board to get any better; it’s to keep everyone else at arm’s length; to ensure he stayed elite. The hunger to stay at the top of a game for so long is present in so few.

Of the greatest players in snooker history – at least its modern history – three are clear of the rest: Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan. 

Two of them dominated the game for a decade each; one of them has dominated for nearly a quarter of a century.

In 2005, Davis competed in his 41st and last ranking final, losing 10-6 to Ding Junhui. Had Davis won, at the age of 48, eight years after his last Triple Crown win and 10 years after his last ranking event win, it would have rightly been hailed as one of snooker’s greatest stories.

At the 2023 UK Championship, O’Sullivan was just two days shy of his 48th birthday when he won a record-extending 22nd Triple Crown event. It wasn’t hailed as one of snooker’s greatest stories because O’Sullivan has ensured there was no barren spell. Ever since his win as a 17-year-old back at the 1993 UK Championship, O’Sullivan has kept on winning.

In just three of his 30 years since winning the UK Championship has O’Sullivan failed to appear in a ranking final, and in only three more has he failed to win a ranking event, meaning O’Sullivan has won at least one ranking event in 24 years since 1993. It’s one of countless mindblowing stats about O’Sullivan’s career.

Davis and Hendry are undoubtedly greats of the game and indeed British sport, but O’Sullivan stands peerless.

Davis won his last world title at 31 and his last Triple Crown at 39; Hendry won his last world title (also his last Triple Crown) at 30. For years – almost decades at this stage – O’Sullivan has been snooker’s best and most transcendent player. 

Between 2014 and 2017, O’Sullivan won 15 out of 16 Masters matches, collecting three more trophies in the process. Two more world titles – to tie him with Hendry – followed in 2020 and 2022, with his record-extending eighth UK title coming in 2023, winning an eighth Masters weeks later.

Seven world titles, eight Masters titles, eight UK titles, 15 maximums, 23 Triple Crowns, 40 ranking titles, more than 1,200 centuries and still going strong.

Thirty years of Ronnie O’Sullivan.

Thirty years of greatness.

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