The Champion, The Legend, The Rocket — Ronnie O’Sullivan
“Whoever called Snooker ‘Chess with Balls’ was rude, but right.”
The year is 1996. The box-office event of the game — World Championship. This man was playing a Canadian, Alain Robidoux, and decided to have some fun during the last frame. A frame is like a set in a tennis match. He switched hands and started potting the balls with his “weaker” left hand. Alain felt humiliated and didn’t shake his hands after the match, so unlikely of a Canadian. He was brought to a hearing with a charge of bringing disrepute to the game. He played 3 frames with his “weaker” hand against a former world champion and won all three. The charges were dropped.
Just one of the many extraordinary things Ronnie O’Sullivan has amazed us with on the baize.
Now, where do I start with my love for this sport and my admiration for this player? I remember the time when I was barely as tall as a snooker table and picked a cue to strike a few balls lined perfectly at the pocket. Potting those made me feel like this is the easiest thing ever. 17 years later and being familiar with this game for almost a decade now, I had never been more wrong. Yet, watching this guy, you wonder if it is you who suck or maybe he is just that good. Maybe both.
For those who don’t know the basic difference between snooker, pool and billiards, bear with me. Many of you might not consider it anything more than a hobby or an indoor game. Sure it doesn’t require a ton of physicality and athleticism. Yet, the mental fortitude and prowess needed to be a professional player and a champion make it a fascinating sport. Simple concepts of momentum and collision can do wonders in this game. Everything is Science. Okay, enough of the geekery.
When you talk about Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most standout moment for people out there might be the maximum break in 5 minutes 20 seconds. For a few others, winning the World championship in 2013. But the most interesting memory for me is the German Masters 2012. Ronnie O’Sullivan trailed Andrew Higginson 4–0 in a best of 9 match. Ronnie hadn’t won a ranking event since 2009 and slipped out of top 10 rankings. A true champion doesn’t surrender when backed against a wall rather it is a test of their character to emerge stronger. He played brilliantly to win the match 5–4 and eventually won the tournament. It marked the beginning of a resurgent second half of a career, many felt had underachieved as per the potential.
Let’s first see why everyone feels that way. 80s and 90s saw two players dominate the sport like never seen before. Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry. They played the game in a way which would set the example for generations to come. Precise positional play, one visit clearance and astute defence. You had the likes of Hurricane Higgins and Jimmy Whirlwind White who were the fan favourites but could not be consistent winners. They could play majestic shots but fell short at the finish line on maximum occasions. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could be mesmerising and simultaneously win everything for not just a few years but decades to come?
Ronnie was like a Rock’n’ Roll to the Opera. He had the break-building capability of Hendry, defence of Davis, the natural talent of Jimmy and popularity of Alex Higgins. His ambidexterity was an asset everyone wished to steal. His break building capability made him a frontrunner like Usain Bolt, once he goes by, you could not even catch his shadow. And man, was he fast. He made referees’ lives miserable during the matches, poor guys had to run around the table to keep up.
He was a part of the Class of 92 with Mark Williams and John Higgins. One was wary of his genius yet he faced a formidable threat in his first triple crown event final. Triple Crown event is like a Grand Slam in Tennis or a Major in Golf. UK Championship 1993, Ronnie faced Stephen Hendry, an already Triple Crown winner. No one would have placed their bets on this 17-year-old. He shocked the world and defeated Hendry to become the youngest winner of a ranking event.
Shouldn’t be a surprise for someone who has been making century breaks since he was 10 years old and first maximum break at the age of 15? Wasn’t too sharp with the media though. A TV reporter once asked, “How big you wanna be (in the game)?” An innocent Ronnie replied “ 5’10” “. Coming events surely cast their shadows before.
He went on to add another triple crown event by winning The Masters in 1995 becoming the youngest champion at the event. He kept winning other major tournaments for the rest of the decade. Yet for someone so talented, the biggest price still eluded the young champion. He kept reaching semi-finals but could not convert those chances. He even made a maximum break in 5 minutes 20 seconds in 1997 at the Crucible. A record to date. Now you understand why he is called “The Rocket”. That’s potting 36 balls in 320 seconds to drop your jaw. He also suffered in his personal life with his parents being sentenced to jail.
Eventually, Ronnie got what was destined to be his at the turn of the century. He defeated a familiar fellow John Higgins to become the World Champion and a career Triple Crown Winner in 2001. Career Triple Crown Winner is like a Career Grand Slam in Tennis. His name was engraved with the likes of his heroes and idols, Davis and Hendry. And like them, he wasn’t going to stop at a single world championship. However, Crucible curse continued and he could not defend his championship. He got his hands back on the trophy in 2004 with the help of Ray Reardon, a former 6-time world champion, who coached and mentored him during the campaign.
A player who was so good at what he did, one could not find a fault in his game by splitting hair. But he could not leave behind his personal demons. He had an emotional meltdown in 2005 World Championship against Peter Ebdon. He gave away his cue to a young fan after his 2006 World Championship exit. He often thought of quitting the game. If only he could apply himself like his idols, he would have broken all their records by the time they retired.
2007 saw him return to his best. He won the Masters and the UK in 2007 and capped it with a World Championship victory in 2008. The most memorable moment of the 2008 title, his 147 break against Mark Williams in the final frame. But the purple patch could not continue with a barrage of major trophies after 2009. The resurgence of John Higgins and the absence of Ronnie O’Sullivan made people question if Ronnie could ever return to the peak. The correct question should not be if but when.
Coming back to our story when Ronnie finally fought against all odds to win a ranking event in 2012. Little did we know that the Crucible was in for a treat that year. His road to the finals wasn’t easy where he faced former world champions in the first 3 rounds. But it didn’t stop the Mozart from writing his symphony. A Déjà vu of 2008 final. His 92 clearance is the best clearance anyone could ever see in any match. Ali in the words of great Jimmy White said: “He has started to annoy me”. Rocket was the World Champion again.
Players, experts and the fans have always witnessed Two Ronnies. One is the greatest player to hold the cue and other is a self-destructive unpredictable personality who could go on to retire the very next moment.
People feared if this was it for Ronnie as they wanted to see more from the showman. He promised he would return but went into exile. You could occasionally spot him in exhibition matches. He would eventually return as People’s champion to defend his crown a year later. Now before we go further, a very famous story about Sachin Tendulkar and fits well in this context. During the 2003 Cricket World Cup, Sachin felt so great he didn’t face a single ball in the nets. He didn’t want to jinx his timing and touch. You would think that’s crazy., yet he scored the maximum runs in a single world cup edition, still a record.
Ronnie played just one competitive match between 2012 and 2013 Crucible campaign. The competition had never been tougher yet he was sublime. It felt as if he was never away. One would think that the practice and matchplay throughout the year should help someone overcome this genius. But as they say, class is permanent. He reached the finals again and became the world champion for 5th time. By winning 2014 Masters and UK, it was 5th Triple Crown for the maestro. It speaks more about the greatness of this man than the effort from the opponents.
“The most important thing, the biggest love of my life, is my snooker. I’ve never been so emotionally ingrained in something — in a person, an object, anything — as I have in snooker”
In my opinion, I prefer the post-2012 Ronnie. Why? Because he fell more in love with this sport. He took the help of Dr Steve Peters to become a zen warrior. He started enjoying the game without putting too much pressure on himself from the fans’ expectation. He had nothing more to prove and no one could have asked him for more. Yet he kept on delivering. The best part, he had the privilege to pick and choose the tournaments he wanted to bless with his presence. I am still waiting for him to pay heed to the Indian Open.
The sweetest victories are the ones which beat the records of our idols. A generation of players came and went by, became pundits and commentators, yet he still remained a force to be reckoned with.
Stephen Hendry got a masterclass from Ronnie in 2008 World Championship semi-finals. Hendry admitted after the match that Ronnie is the best player by a mile. But the records still spoke otherwise. Ronnie had to make sure that the world not only remembers him for his eccentricity but his greatest achievements on the biggest stages. He went on to win 19 Triple Crown events to surpass Hendry and cement his legacy as the GOAT. I still remember the moment he won the 19th major at UK 2018. Holding that trophy, he wasn’t a 43 year old senior cherishing breaking his idol’s record, but the same 17-year-old kid who won it for the first time. He also won 4 ranking events in the 2017–18 season putting the competition on an alert that he wasn’t done yet. He eventually won his 36th ranking event matching Hendry’s record.
Let’s glance at some of the other amazing records en route this journey:
- 1060 century breaks, yeah, the digits are correct, the first player to cross 1000 mark
- 15 maximum breaks, including 6 in the final frame of the match and 3 in the crucible
- Won a best of 9 match with 5 centuries including a 147
- The most wins at a single professional event — Premier League — 10 times
- Becoming world no 1 at 43 years old
What’s greatness without a few mishits? Revolting the low prize money for a 147 by scoring a 146, punching the table in frustration, conceding the match to Hendry after just 1 mistake, undermining the competition by calling them average, not caring about the tour and other events by having his pick, and attacking the world snooker tour chairman for the way he did his job. It’s okay Ronnie, we love the way you are. I have always admired geniuses with a tad of arrogance if they back it up.
Still, the biggest record he has chased for some time now hasn’t been kind to him. Even with glory in other events, Ronnie couldn’t reach the pinnacle of snooker after 2013. Ronnie was a favourite heading into 2014 World Championship and didn’t disappoint by reaching the finals. Everyone wrote off his opponent as Ronnie had never lost previously in the finals. Ronnie led 10–4 with the finish line in sight. A heroic comeback from Mark Selby led to the biggest upset in Ronnie’s career.
Mark Selby has been the toughest rival to Ronnie after John Higgins. Ronnie could not shrug off the demons for long and could not replicate the Crucible glory again. Early exits, that tussle with Ali Carter, unexpected defeats, 1st round exit, nothing could go more wrong. His disdain for long matches was quite evident from the results. Performances throughout the year gave everyone confidence that maybe, just maybe this is his year. Crucible wasn’t kind enough to the 5-time champion. It’s like chasing your crush for a long time, where you console yourself saying I am over her, yet so badly want to make her yours.
In the meantime, the Class of 92 was making headway. Mark Williams became the first player to win World Snooker Championship, Six-red World Championship and World Seniors Championship. He became the second-oldest world champion after Reardon in 2018. John Higgins wasn’t much behind and reached the finals of the World Championship for 3 consecutive years between 2017–19. However, he fell short all three times. Not bad for the trio who boasts of 88 ranking titles among them.
The dawn of the new decade has been unfortunate for everyone. Except for Ronnie. Expectations were high from him, as usual, for this World Championship. Coronavirus restricted the entry of fans into the arena, and Ronnie took the most advantage of it due to no crowd pressure. He played the quickest game in the championship history defeating Thepchaiya Un-Nooh 10–1 in just 108 minutes. Everyone was in for something special. Still, he is never far from controversy. He said in an interview that the competition and young players are half decent and he hasn’t had to work hard to be this successful for a quarter of a century. To be honest, Higgins is the second active player behind Ronnie who has won a total of 9 triple crown events, 10 behind Ronnie’s record.
He would have to eat his words when he trailed 14–16 in the semi-final against Mark Selby in a best of 33. It felt as if his wings would yet again be clipped by the Jester from Leicester. Ronnie had to dig deep to halt Mark in his strides to win the match 17–16. Mark complained of Ronnie being disrespectful during the match. Ronnie simply answered that breaking out of a deadlock situation isn’t his game and doesn’t matter where he plays, Crucible or his home basement, none matters if not for his cue action. He joked about ordering it from Amazon to help him in the finals. Trust me, even Jeff Bezos can’t find and deliver that.
I have never seen Ronnie this scrappy in a World Championship finals. His opponent Kyren Wilson was neither converting his chances nor punishing Ronnie for his mistakes. Ultimately experience dominated the youth. Ronnie led 8–2 followed by a valiant comeback effort from Wilson to cut the lead to 10–7. Yet Ronnie was back in his supreme form to make it 16–8. I could reminisce about 2008, 2012 and 2013. Crucible allowed a lucky few to watch the final in the arena. Bless those souls for they witnessed the GOAT rise to the occasion and become the world champion for the 6th time. Ronnie has now won all the major tournaments with a difference of almost 20 years between the first and the last major title. With this, he reaches 20 Triple Crown event and 37 ranking event victories, leaving Hendry in the rear view mirror.
Just one more thing Ronnie. It is not just the half-decent competition, your enormous talent is no match for the mere mortal. Come on Ronnie, only one more World Championship title to match the King of Crucible.
You never appreciate the beauty of a sport until you have experienced or lived it. I have been fortunate since my college years to play this sport. It looked easy in the YouTube clip yet you could not repeat it even after a hundred attempts. When I am writing this I can not help but admire the longevity and consistency of Ronnie. The game is tough but no one makes it look this easy. The legacy of Ronnie O’Sullivan will not just be the engravings on the trophies but the countless memories etched in the minds and hearts of people like me
“The relentless pursuit of perfection has been my problem over the years. It’s maybe held me back.”
From what we can say, Ronnie, no one is perfect. But none comes as close to being perfect as you.