O’Sullivan is the sort of sporting celebrity who attracts as much attention for what he says or does away from the table as what he does on it, whether it is his family life, struggles with alcohol or his controversial comments about the sport he has enriched since bursting onto the scene in 1992. Combine this sort of combustible character with his brilliance on the baize and it is no wonder that he is still by far the biggest draw in snooker. Go to an event when Ronnie is playing and you are likely to find a queue out the door. Go another day and the only cues to be seen will be in the hands of players who could walk down the street without anyone batting an eye, even if they happen to be ranked second or third in the world.
So much of O’Sullivan’s time in snooker has been unpredictable, from his scarcely believable maximum break in just over five minutes in 1997 to the time when he allowed a stage invader to take his shot, or the time when he likened one venue to a ‘hellhole’ which stank of ‘urine’. One of the most unlikely things of all, though, has perhaps been the longevity of a man who has repeatedly threatened to retire or, more recently, set up a breakaway tour.
He has regularly clashed with World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn about how the sport is run and speculation has been going on for years about when he might call it a day. Amid all the rumours though, he has continued to produce dazzling performances on a consistent basis. His victory at the UK Championship in December 2018 was a record 19th Triple Crown (UK, World or Masters) title, and the way he plays does not suggest at all that he has fallen out of love with the game.
Still King Of The Castle
While O’Sullivan has not actually ended a season as the No.1 player in the world since 2010, he remains the biggest scalp in snooker. Nowadays he picks and chooses his tournaments and does not pursue every available opportunity for ranking points. For a man who famously loves jogging, it is somewhat ironic that he has no desire to run himself into the ground by staying on World Snooker’s treadmill of never-ending tournaments.
His stubbornness and refusal to play in every event has led to some wrong decisions; he admitted after the 2019 Shoot-Out that he should have taken part in the quick-fire tournament that he sees as very much the future of snooker. Instead, Ronnie was up in the gallery offering some half-heartedly humorous analysis as a pundit - like a king letting others run around in his castle before he returns to sit on his throne.
O’Sullivan will be back in action at the Players Championship and is the favourite as usual to lift the trophy. Now well into his 40s, he seems as fit as ever in a sport that may not be the most physically demanding but still becomes more challenging with age. Snooker is a test of the mind as much as the body, of course, and O’Sullivan’s work with renowned sports psychologist Steve Peters has helped to keep him focused and settled, allowing him to showcase his talent every time he takes to the table and keep those poor matches that blighted his early career to a minimum.
Ronnie’s aura must also have an effect on his opponents, leaving them to feel like they are playing with their arms tied together in the face of O’Sullivan and his army of fans. It is hard to imagine that he will stop being dominant, let alone competitive, anytime soon so it will just come down to whether he wants to keep chasing history or turn his back on the game to concentrate on other opportunities.
One target might be to equal or overtake Stephen Hendry’s record haul of seven World Championship titles. O’Sullivan is currently on five and has not won since 2013, but it would take a brave person to bet against him this year, even with such fierce competition.
Who Could Replace O’Sullivan?
There can be no doubt that there is more depth of quality in professional snooker than ever before. Ronnie might have called some of the lower-ranked players ‘numpties’ and said it can be like being in a ‘zoo’ at some tournaments, but there are a lot of thoroughbreds out there with natural ability.
The standard of snooker will still be dizzyingly high even when O’Sullivan and other players of his generation such as John Higgins and Mark Williams retire. However, there is nobody who really sticks out as being the next big star, someone who can pull in the punters with their style and personality in the way that Ronnie has done, or even Jimmy White or Alex Higgins did before him.
Current No.1 Mark Selby is a class act all-round and hypnotic to watch for snooker supporters, but he does not come close to Ronnie in terms of flair and his ‘Jester from Leicester’ moniker does not reflect his businesslike manner at all. Masters champion Judd Trump has the potting panache of O’Sullivan, but perhaps not the charisma.
In the absence of the flamboyant personalities of yesteryear, the game could move in a different direction. There are likely to be more tournaments such as the Shoot-Out which promote fast play and are entertaining regardless of who plays; it was exhilarating to watch Thepchaiya Un-Nooh, perhaps the only player quicker than Ronnie on the whole circuit, knock in big breaks against the clock on his way to the 2019 title.
The demand for snooker is growing all around the world, with China a particular hotspot. When Ding Junhui got to the final of the World Championship in 2016, it was reported that 210 million viewers watched the tournament, out of a global audience of 300 million.
The Crucible in Sheffield will keep the World Championship until at least 2027, but a replica venue is being built in Beijing and it is conceivable that China will one day stage the biggest tournament of the snooker calendar. Snooker will certainly survive once Ronnie has gone and new stars will emerge, but there is only one Rocket and fans will hope he continues to do what he does best for several more years.
Ronnie O'Sullivan in 2019