You could call me a reformed Rocket
From Times Online
February 20, 2005
By Joseph Dunn of The Sunday Times
Ronnie “the Rocket” O’Sullivan is casually potting some stray colours in the snooker room of the Groucho club in London’s Soho. He looks up and nods “hello” but carries on playing his shot, sinking the blue in the top left.
Then the most naturally gifted player ever to grace the green baize sits down and lights a cigarette.
He is 29 and says he is more relaxed than he has ever been, that he has found an equilibrium in his life that was absent before.
But calmness is not something that comes naturally to O’Sullivan.
Ever since he became the youngest player to make a maximum break he has seemed to be in a rush. It is an energy that has seen him play the most sublime snooker the game has known as well as propelled him to the depths of drug and alcohol abuse and nearly got him thrown out of the game he loves.
His precociousness was not confined to snooker. “I have always wanted to do things early,” he says. “Take cars. I have always loved cars and when I was eight I used to look at them and wonder why I wasn’t allowed to drive them.
“When I was 14 I used to nick my mum’s car keys from the place she always kept them and drive her car up and down the drive while she was watching telly. I think that she knew that I was doing this but the unspoken rule was that I never take it off the drive.
“Well, one day I thought, what the hell, I’ll take it around the block. So I drove out of the drive and onto the main road, and who is the first person I pass coming the other way? My dad. He went nuts and that was it, my driving days were over.”
His snooker days were already in full swing, however. At the age of 12 he made a total clearance of 142 (potting every ball on the table in one inning) and a year later became British under-16 champion. Still only 14, O’Sullivan, then known on the circuit as the Essex Exocet on account of his speed around the table, was winning prizes of up to £1,000.
By the time he took his driving test — “the minute I turned 17” — he already had a brand new Rover sitting in the drive courtesy of a sponsorship deal with Premier Motors of Romford.
“It was perfect for me because I was always cruising up and down the motorway to various tournaments.
I’d start in the morning and load all the gear into the back, drive up the motorway, stop at a few service stations and stay at some hotel for the night. It wasn’t Park Lane, but they were okay and it was fun.”
He bought himself a new BMW with the prize money from his first tournament win. He had wanted a Mercedes but his dad told him to calm down. The future looked bright. Then things began to go wrong.
In 1991 his father was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment after a man was stabbed to death in a nightclub during a birthday party for Charlie Kray’s daughter. Ronnie, by now a star, began veering off the rails. “From 18 to 20 was a mad phase, the drinking, the drugs. I’m ashamed of myself that I went that way. I think I started to hit rock-bottom in 1998 when I was 22. I stayed there for 18 months to two years.”
Although still playing snooker that at times left commentators dumbstruck he was never far from self-combusting. At the 1996 world championships he was fined £20,000 for assaulting a press officer. Two years later he tested positive for cannabis at the Benson & Hedges Masters, forfeited his title and was fined £60,000.
It was a period that saw him live up to his snooker nicknames on the road too. “I was banned twice outright for speeding,” he says. “There was a road near my home called the mad mile — it’s dead straight and great to drive but there’s a limit of 30mph there. I was caught doing 80mph. Then about five years ago I was on a motorway and saw the police on the bridge. I knew I was going over 70mph and saw them coming down onto the motorway but said to myself, ‘you’re already nicked so you may as well try to get away’.
“When they eventually pulled me over they said, ‘We were doing 150mph and you were getting away’. I said I didn’t even know the BMW could go that fast and they nicked me. I was full of it. I thought I could do anything.”
To many it seemed that O’Sullivan was blazing a trail towards self destruction, like that other fiery snooker player and people’s champion Alex “Hurricane” Higgins. But unlike the Hurricane, O’Sullivan found it in himself to claw his way back from the brink. In 2000 he booked himself into the Priory, the celebrity detox clinic. Nine months later he won his first world championship at the Crucible in Sheffield. “Snooker, in a way, saved me.
Otherwise I could have gone completely off the top board. I could have been dead by now.”
Today O’Sullivan says he has swapped boozing for a more mature hobby. “I just like to spend time at home going to the golf course. That’s one of the reasons I chose my Mercedes SL 500, I love the feeling of driving a Merc. It’s so comfortable and there is enough room in the boot for my golf clubs. If you can’t fit your golf clubs in, there’s no point in buying the car.”
Until recently he also owned a £125,000 Bentley twin turbo coupé. “I loved it, but I thought it was a bit old for me. I’m only 29 and I think the Bentley is for someone in their forties. I never used to drive it and would just look at it there in my garage thinking someone should really be getting some enjoyment out of it — it was a waste.”
And bombing up and down the mad mile in Essex is in the past now, too. “I’ve learnt my lesson: if you want to drive fast you go to a racetrack and do it,” he says earnestly. “I think it was just a phase you go through. I sometimes think to myself there isn’t any rush — the only rush is going on in your own head. I’ve chilled out a bit now.”
On his CD changer
I like rock music mostly in the car. Something by the Rolling Stones, U2 or Stereophonics, although I also like R Kelly