Published Date: 11 October 2009
By Tom English
SIMPLE RED, right corner pocket. It's a bread and butter shot. It's easy. Most days, Ronnie O'Sullivan could make that pot with a blindfold on, could make it on auto-pilot, almost without knowing he'd done it.
This is the three-time world champion we're talking about, a phenomenon who once took a fraction over five minutes to compile a magical 147, who inspires awe among his fellow pros, who is unquestionably the most naturally talented player who ever picked up a cue. Last Wednesday, all he had to do was bang in that red and John Higgins would have been a beaten man, blown out of the Grand Prix in Glasgow by the Rocket.
But Ronnie didn't make the pot. He didn't even feel comfortable standing over it. He was looking at a routine ball and he couldn't put it away. Lost the frame and then the match. Went back down south with a shrug. Somebody said that maybe he needs a new tip on his cue. "Need a new head on me shoulders, more like," he replied.
It's Friday evening and he's laughing. You mention some of the things that have been said about him by writers and players and he's chuckling. All that Ronnie-on-the-psychologist's-couch stuff. The drink, the drugs, the depression, the dad in prison for murder, the demons that close in on him.
"Ah, it's a long story, mate. I won't bother you with it. But I get great enjoyment out of listening to people analyse me, seriously thinking that they know what the problems are and they're so far off the map it's funny. Gonna save my breath. Pointless. Let them off. Let them think they know what they're talking about."
But he can't help himself. Ronnie's a talker. Doesn't hide much. Very little is off limits as far as he's concerned. He was brought up honest, he says, and that's the way he'll always be.
"Maybe I should take a lesson in talking bollocks," he says. "Lie to all them reporters. Say the usual stuff that everyone else says. But I don't want to be a robot. Don't want to be like the others. I find it hard to hide my emotions. That's why I'm better off not doing interviews. I'm doing this one, but I don't do many. Honestly, I like to keep myself to myself a lot of time because I know I'm gonna spill it all out and they're going to go, 'Oooooh!' But this stuff is just normal, it's just a normal day in the life of me. I don't want to keep telling people how I'm feeling because it gets a bit boring and I get sick of the sound of my own voice sometimes. You know what I mean? But I feel all right at the moment. Yeah, I'm good."
Believe him or don't believe him. He doesn't mind. He's trying to find some equilibrium in his game right now and if it clicks, it clicks and life will be a lot more tranquil and if it doesn't, well, he's just going to have to find a way of living with it, a means of discovering the kind of perspective that sometimes eludes him.
But it's his perspective that counts, not yours. You remind him that he won in Shanghai only last month, so his form can't be that bad, but he just sighs at that. Yeah, he won, but that was just an isolated week of decent snooker amid months of average stuff.
"If I was even hitting the ball a little bit sweet then I can beat the majority of these players, comfortable. But I'm not even able to do that sometimes. I come off the back of last season and thought I couldn't face another year performing like that. I didn't want to. That's why I started playing with the left hand, something different to keep me occupied, something to want me to get out of bed in the morning and play snooker. October, November, January, February, March, April – six months of rubbish. I couldn't wait until Sheffield (the world championship] was over to be honest with you. I didn't even want to go to Sheffield. I thought, 'You know what, you're going to embarrass yourself'. I doubted that I'd get through my first round match, but I did. I come up to my second round match and the wheels just come off. The wheels weren't on in the first place, to be fair. By the time it was over, part of me was relieved and part of me was gutted because then you gotta watch it on telly for the next eight, nine days and you can't get away from it because it's on from ten in the morning to ten at night."
Ronnie's dad, Ron Snr, would have talked him round. Theirs has been a complicated relationship, but one that has survived despite the distance between them. Next April, Ron Snr is coming out of jail. Banged up for murdering a former bodyguard of the Kray twins – the judge said it had racial overtones, Ronnie says it was a fight in a club that just went wrong – his father has remained the most important person in his life despite being apart from him since he was 16 years old.
"He was given an 18-year tariff, so we're expecting him out next year. When a man's done his time, he's done his time, you can't keep him in there forever. You do the crime, you serve the time, innit. We've stayed close. Oh, yeah. If my dad hadn't been so positive then it could probably have had an impact on our relationship. But he's helped me through whatever's gone on in my life. Been a journey, if you like. Interesting journey. If somebody set you that task, you'd go, cor, that's a big 'un. It could be a programme one day. You have reality shows, well, have a show where we're gonna take this person away from you for 20 years, we're going to film you and see how you cope. That would make an interesting show, eh?
"I think I've done all right, I've done well. Could have been better, could have been worse. It is what it is. When he went away it was a big blow to me. Would have been to anybody, but you get through that phase and you just get on with it. It'll be nice to see him have his freedom back."
Somebody once wrote that though Ron Jnr wasn't behind bars, he was every bit as trapped as his old man. There might have been something in that a few years back, when he was in with the wrong crowd and drinking and smoking dope and swallowing Prozac and thinking that a conversion to Buddhism might be the solution to his problems.
None of that made him happy. "I took up running," he says. "It's something I've done because I was fat and overweight. The people I started running with looked well-healthy and I thought I'm gonna hang around with these people because the people I was hanging about with, all they done was smoke, drink booze and play poker and they all looked rough. I thought I'm gonna end up looking like this little mob.
"I started going down the gym. I just thought, I'll hang about with these. Might rub off on me. That's what's happened. For my personality, I could quite easily go off the rails, I could quite easily go back on the booze, given enough time hanging around them type of people, you could easily see me propped up in some bar in Dublin at eight o'clock in the morning having a good drink-up, thinking 'Wicked, I don't want the party to end'. That's no good for me. Them days I've got to put behind me. In order to not let that happen I have a new batch of friends, people who're doing their running. I'm no great runner but I give it my best. My dad said to me a run turns an average day into a good day. He's right."
The trouble just crept up on him years back. He never smoked a fag in his youth and rarely had a drink. Then, at the age of 20, he lost to John Parrott at the Crucible and the feeling of defeat turned him off snooker for a while. "I was hanging around with some young fellas who were City traders and all drove nice cars and I thought, that's what I need, I want a bit of that. Snooker weren't doing it for me. I was struggling even then. I was pissed off with it. I needed something else in my life. That's when I got involved in the wrong company, if you like. I got into it, easily led and then seven or eight years just went by. It was like, 'F*** me, what happened there?' I thought, 'I've gotta get off this'. Even when I was doing it, I felt terrible, but I didn't know another way out. That's why I got some help. They put me in the Priory or whatever. Best thing that ever happened to me. I'm still easily led. But I don't have to do that no more. Life's all right, mate. Trust me. The snooker titles might seem a long way away at the moment, but I always believe that form is temporary and class is permanent. That'll sort itself out, hopefully."
He's got a new project on the go, he says. A real important one. He's been involved in snooker since he was six, so that's 27 years of experience and he's seen the game change for the worse in that time. When he was playing as a young man, snooker halls were electric with waiting lists to get on the tables. Now a lot of the clubs are closing down and there's not much in the way of grassroots anymore.
The company, Rileys, approached O'Sullivan to become an ambassador for their drive to get more youngsters playing the game in the UK. It's a concept he likes. He remembers how it was on Saturday morning in his youth, turning up at a club with 150 others and playing competitive snooker. The game's lost that, he says.
"If we ain't careful we'll have a game dominated by Chinese in the next ten years. Guaranteed. I've been to China. It's fantastic. They love their snooker. They're like we were in the 1980s. They'll take over unless we can get back to the grassroots. Rileys have nearly 130 clubs and we'll see how we go. But I'd love to find some kids who have all the hunger and the dreams and that innocence about them. It would be great to help out some boys like that."
He's 33 now and figures he's got seven years left in him as a top-class pro. He can see the end down the line. It's why he's got to thinking about putting something back. "Forty is the age. I'd hate to think that if I got to 40 I'd still be top of my game. That would be pretty sad, really. It would. Sad for snooker if a 40-year-old was still number one and world champion. A lot of players would have to look at themselves and ask what's going on? It shouldn't happen. It's a young man's game.
"People ask what I will do after snooker. They say you could be a commentator, but you couldn't pay me enough money in the world to do that job. Sit there all day looking at a little screen waiting for the camera to come on to you? I don't know how they do that one. That's demoralising, that. I don't know what I'll do. Just try and enjoy myself. But, I think, when I get to 40 I can look back over my career and go, 'You know what, that was a mad one, that. What was all that about, then?' It won't matter then, will it? Where did all that come from? I'll laugh at it one day. I will."
World title No.1,2001: Coming from the pain of semi final defeat in 1999
and a first round exit in 2000, O'Sullivan claimed his first world title, top, with an 18-14 frame victory over John Higgins.
World title No.2, 2004: With a little helpful advice from former world champion Ray Reardon, the Rocket again emerged top of the pile, middle, with an 18-8 victory over another Scot, Graeme Dott.
World title No.3, 2008: The same score line as 2004 did for Ali Carter as O'Sullivan claimed his third world title. He also compiled a record-breaking ninth competitive maximum at the tournament.