By Ivan Speck
Last updated 07th January 2010
Ronnie O’Sullivan didn’t even need to pause and consider the question. He had just admitted that the magic which lifted him on to a plateau of snooker genius in his twenties had gone.
The natural follow-up was to ask whether he believed it would come back. Barely had the last syllable dropped when his answer kicked in, the starkness brutal in its simplicity.
‘No, I don’t think it will,’ said the Rocket. ‘It won’t stop me trying but I’m not going to be a slave to it like I was for 17 years to try to get back that feeling, the repetitiveness and consistency that I used to have.
‘Trying to put it right is what I’ve got to let go of and just accept that entering maybe my last four or five years of playing snooker — if I’m lucky — I have to embrace a new type of attitude of enjoying the game.
‘I’ve probably scarred myself over the years trying too hard to get back to the form that I used to perform at. I won 74 out of 76 matches when I first turned professional. OK, the first 30 were against lower-ranked players but there were a good 40 or 50 matches against players who are all still professionals now.
‘I put them away with ease because I was just relentless in finding that slot every day. It was boom, boom, boom, the pockets were huge and I’d just come to the table and think about clearing up. I don’t think I’ll ever get those days again.’
The subject had arisen in a discussion about Phil Taylor, the darts master who claimed a 15th world title on Sunday. O’Sullivan was in the audience at Alexandra Palace, perhaps the only one of the 2,500 present who was able to recognise the true mark of the man up on stage.
‘Some people are born to do things. Maradona was born to play football, Phil Taylor was born to play darts. I’m not sure there’s any other sportsman that I’ve seen who looked that way.
‘Even Tiger Woods — to a certain degree you can see there’s been a lot of coaching to make him a bit of a machine. Phil looks so comfortable at what he is doing, yet he has all the good habits and the right stuff to immerse him in what he’s doing.
‘He finds it easy to practise, easy to play under pressure, easy to perform well all the time. That is so rare. It’s something that I experienced as a youngster. I used to have times when I was in that space, so watching him I can feel what he is doing, I get on the mannerisms, I get on the tempo and how his body language is.
‘I know why he’s doing X, Y and Z and I’m with him on it but I don’t experience that as much as I used to because I don’t play as well for long enough now. I have too many bad games which knock you out of your rhythm and then it becomes a bit of an effort.’
O’Sullivan’s honesty is charming and disarming in equal measure. If it is underscored by fact in this case, it will spread regret around the snooker world. He has no peers. With a few deft swishes of his cue, he can lift snooker beyond a game of ball and pockets and turn it into a multi-colour kaleidoscope of patterns on green baize.
In full flow, the 34-year-old belies his nickname. A rocket explodes. O’Sullivan, by contrast, glides around the table, dripping perfection with a touch of side here, a hint of topspin, the merest flick of stun.
Is he comfortable with the admission that rediscovering the form that brought him three world titles and ownership of his opponents may be beyond him?
‘Not really. No, I’m not happy about it or comfortable with it. It’s just something that I’ve got to learn to live with and come to accept. When people talk about expectations, sometimes they mean trying to do something they’re not comfortable with. Delusions basically.
‘I don’t want to delude myself. I know that I’m still capable of performing well and that my game is good enough to give anyone a run for their money, but I’m not happy about that.
‘I’d rather be in the Phil Taylor mode of wanting to win and expecting to win, of knowing that your game is there and that if it’s not, you’re still excited about the next tournament because you know you’ll find your form that quickly.
‘I’ve done a bit of damage to myself over the years trying to attain that game again. I don’t intend to do that for the next few years. This year is about enjoying it and setting myself new challenges.’
The word ‘challenge’ keeps cropping up. O’Sullivan, you sense, gets bored with a game that is as natural to him as darts is to Taylor. The adrenaline which drives him has dried up and now he is looking to expand his snooker horizons.
If he wins a fifth Masters title at Wembley next week, it will be a by-product of his attempt to force his new sponsors, Premier Inn, to give away 147 free hotel rooms. He will try to perform the feat with a purple cue, or rather one of his own cues that his sponsors have painted in their own colour.
‘People might say, “It’s mad that he’s not focused on winning the tournament, he’s more focused on making a 147. How can that be right?” My thinking is that if I can make the perfect 147, then obviously my game isn’t in bad shape.
‘The cue looks weird, but your mind can adapt to any situation. If people can adapt to being in Guantanamo Bay and those conditions, I can surely adapt to a purple cue. I’m all for beating and overcoming things.
‘I used to do it in practice. To motivate myself I would just go for 147s all day and I was surprised how quickly I forgot about the negative side of the game because I was just red-black, red-black, red-black. I didn’t have time to think about why I was doing it. I was just doing it for the fun of it.
‘It might seem a bit crazy to others but it makes perfectly good sense to me and that’s all it has to make sense to.’
The good sense, in fact, of a man who has made nine 147 breaks in official matches and who also once made three in a single day in an exhibition match.
Snooker and fun have not been easy bedfellows in recent years, but O’Sullivan’s new outlook and the return of Barry Hearn to oversee the running of the sport may be about to change all that.
The Rocket is glad of company on his crusade, casting a sideswipe at his fellow professionals for the present dullness and drawing, as he often does, on another icon from world sport to further his argument.
‘The players are too machine-like. They malfunction sometimes. They wake up in the morning and you have to switch them on (he mimes pressing a switch). That’s the bad thing with snooker players. They become like robots.
‘Usain Bolt was maybe the first person to show the world that you don’t need to be so serious and intense about what you do to still perform to the highest level possible. He’s been a lesson to a lot of people in sport.
‘I think a lot of the red tape will go now that Barry Hearn’s on board. Snooker is lucky to have him. I think it will be a happier circuit with more opportunities to play and Barry encouraging the players to lighten up a bit.
‘I want to come away from the Masters saying, “That was a buzz” and anything that gives you a buzz and makes you feel good about yourself is vitally important for sustainability.’
Snooker’s own sustainability is reliant upon O’Sullivan as much as Hearn. Who knows, a new start for his sport may even reignite the Rocket.