Ronnie O'Sullivan: A genius and troubled soul – so which of the two Ronnies will turn up?

The Rocket seems to have won his battles with drink, drugs and depression. Here he speaks out about Hearn's masterplan, his bid for a fourth world title and the fact his dad must watch him on TV from prison. Hector Nunns speaks to Ronnie O'Sullivan
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The Independent Online

During the official launch for this year's World Championship at the usually reverential RAC Club on London's Pall Mall, WPBSA chairman Barry Hearn protectively put his arm round the shoulder of his most prized asset, Ronnie O'Sullivan, and loudly challenged the throng: "Who says there are no characters in this game? I have loved this boy since he was 12 years old. He's a total nutcase – but what a character."

Hearn's predecessor, the ousted Sir Rodney Walker, may not have had the darts promoter's cod psychiatry skills but he, too, was acutely aware of the enormous premium that O'Sullivan put on the value of what he was selling. While the Rocket was in orbit, his star shone brightly enough to mask the fact that the surrounding galaxy was at times looking a little gloomy.

The outgoing world No 1 has always been pure box office and a magnet for headlines with his brilliance in the arena, and streams of consciousness away from the table – and that is before you touch upon his 18-year struggle to come to terms with his father's imprisonment for murder, battles won against drink, drugs and depression, and his capacity for unscheduled early walkouts or run-ins with authority. Some rivals may begrudge the attention and rewards that come his way, and the apparent kid-glove treatment at times afforded him by those petrified he might walk out for good. But others closer to his level, notably the defending champion John Higgins, who has grabbed his fellow 34-year-old's No 1 ranking, acknowledge that O'Sullivan's genius with a cue in hand just has the effect of making the pie bigger for everyone else to share out.

The bookies' favourite to win the world title on Bank Holiday Monday, 3 May, remains something of a loner on the circuit, preferring the company of his own entourage and in recent years successfully combating the boredom and hotel fatigue at longer tournaments by hooking up with local athletics clubs and pursuing his running habit, while others gossip about snooker politics in the lounges.

There has been plenty of that of late, with Hearn's "masterplan" to turn around an ailing game in the hands of the players who face a crucial vote in the summer. If that is lost the new chairman will almost certainly walk and with no clear alternative the prospects of a full renaissance will have disappeared as quickly as an O'Sullivan 147.

Self-knowledge may have come late to O'Sullivan, a staunch supporter of Hearn's proposed revolution, but it has clearly arrived – and he now feels it necessary to insulate himself from some of the "negativity" he detects around the circuit.

"Snooker players have always moaned, it seems like it's almost genetic," O'Sullivan said. So has he been infected? "Probably. When you see me moaning about something, maybe that's what snooker has done for me. You go to a snooker club and it can be like a morgue, and around it they are all griping, even the ones that aren't playing. It's like a disease that feeds into them. But that's just snooker players.

"Footballers maybe have a laugh and a joke, and talk about bling and all that. Snooker players moan about their luck, 'look how unlucky I've been', and it is only your Davises and your Hendrys, the really positive ones, that rise above it. The rest of them are a right negative lot, so don't worry about them, they'll be all right. If it was a £1 million first prize they'd still be saying: 'Yeah, but he's getting this, and he's getting that, and how's me luck?' They're a good bunch at heart really, but they need to get down, play snooker, and let the business people do their thing."

Lesser lights might say that it is easier to walk around with a smile on your face – not something O'Sullivan always manages – with millions in the bank, a property portfolio to rival Robbie Fowler, and sponsorships to burn.

On Hearn's blueprint for the future, O'Sullivan fears another damaging civil war, with former world champion Peter Ebdon mobilising opposition against Hearn. O'Sullivan said: "It has to happen, if it doesn't then as far as I'm concerned it's all over. I like the idea there will be more tournaments, and also that some of those events will be over a long weekend. You'll be able to turn up on a Friday, and go home on a Monday. No one wants to be away from home for nine days, and for three or four of those sitting in a hotel room not actually doing anything. You want to be busy if you're away, and that's what makes the World Championship so tough to win. There is a lot of hanging around, and it's tough to occupy yourself and keep your mind busy."

Inevitably, the conversation turns to his father, Ronnie O'Sullivan Snr, who was imprisoned in September 1992 on an 18-year tariff and has not seen his son – who turned professional a few weeks earlier – win any of his titles. O'Sullivan has never shied away from talking about his father, who he believes to have been the most powerful driving force behind his success, and with a full release date likely later this year, there had been widespread speculation that Ronnie Snr would appear at the Crucible on the terms of a licence allowing him days' release.

However, O'Sullivan, who in the past claimed he would never follow through on his threats to quit the sport while his father was in prison, said: "I don't think my dad will be there watching at the Crucible this year. He'll be watching it on television like he has for the past number of years. One day he will be there, though. I don't really know exactly when he is due for full release either, there is a lot of red tape involved. I'm as desperate to know as anyone, but I'm not being told anything."

As he goes looking for a fourth world title, O'Sullivan could hardly have been handed a tougher opponent in tomorrow's first-round match, the draw made at Wembley Stadium last month while outside the pitch was relaid for a 10th time. How long ago that seems. Baize cloths are so much easier to maintain.

Liang Wenbo is China's No 2 player, and if the season were to finish tomorrow, the 23-year-old's impressive recent form would ensure he climbed into the elite top 16 for the first time in his career.

O'Sullivan is only too aware of the threat posed to the traditional British domination of the blue-riband event – there has been only one winner from outside the UK and Ireland at the Crucible, and that was Canadian Cliff Thorburn back in 1980.

And that is partly the reason for the Chigwell-based player's wholehearted support for a "Future Stars" programme launched in association with club operators Rileys, which will see O'Sullivan pick the winner at the final stages in Sheffield this week of an X Factor-style contest seeking to unearth the "new Ronnies".

It is clearly a project which has lit something inside an often dilettante O'Sullivan, who fears the home conveyor belt of talent has ground to a halt. He said: "It's a chance for me to put something back, and I will be looking to choose a youngster with not only talent but style, flair and even a bit of attitude.

"As well as them getting £5,000 to kick-start their career, I'm going to train and mentor the kid who comes out on top. I'm sure he will have a great future in the game. Maybe it will help reintroduce that bit of competition at amateur level that has been missing. I do believe the standard of those coming on after the current top players is not as good, and the top 16 could all be Chinese in a few years."

Last year the Australian semi-finalist Neil Robertson, who did as much as anyone to make the 2009 World Championship an especially palatable vintage, privately expressed anxiety before his last-four clash with Shaun Murphy that everyone would lose interest in the tournament following O'Sullivan's early exit to Mark Allen. Some may have done so, but they missed Robertson and Allen's exciting emergence on the biggest stage.

This year, if O'Sullivan, the Eric Cantona to Hearn's Sir Alex Ferguson, is to claim the £250,000 first prize at the World Championship, he is going to have to display far greater resolve than last month in China, when a reckless attempt on the final black cost him the match. In horseracing, it might have earned him an investigation into a "non-trier". But he insisted: "I was not trying to be too flash, just drop it in dead weight. It was a millimetre from being a fantastic shot."

Ordinary will never be enough, and that is presumably all music to the ears of Hearn.

The Rocket's highs and lows

1992 His dad, Ronnie O'Sullivan Snr, sentenced to minimum of 18 years after a stabbing in a Chelsea club.

1993 Ronnie wins UK Championship one month before 18th birthday.

1996 Found guilty of assaulting media official Mike Ganley at the World Championship, resulting in a two-year suspended sentence.

1997 In first round of the Worlds, records fastest-ever maximum, in just five minutes and 20 seconds.

1998 Stripped of his Irish Masters title after a drugs test finds cannabis in his system.

2001 Wins first World Championship in 2001 with an 18-14 victory over John Higgins; there are further world titles in 2004 and 2008.

2006 Walks out of his UK Championship quarter-final against Stephen Hendry, trailing 4-1, resulting in a £21,000 fine.

2008 At a press conference in Beijing, points to his crotch and asks female Chinese journalists: "Do you want to suck that? Do you want to come and suck that later?"

Sam Hart

Chance to shine at Crucible

Ding Junhui (China, 23 years old)

Hailed as a prodigy and future world champion at 15, reigning UK champion is only now starting to iron out temperamental flaws. Has never delivered in Sheffield; this may be his time.

Mark Williams (Wales, 35)

After falling out of the top 16, and with two world titles a fading memory, the Welshman is reborn this season and beat Ding in China. Tipped for a long run at the Crucible by Stephen Hendry.

Jamie Cope (England, 24)

Cope was unlucky to lose 13-12 to last year's winner John Higgins after leading 12-10 in a second-round clash. Has been banging on the door for two seasons, but needs A-game to beat Ali Carter.

Michael Holt (England, 31)

An effervescent character whose ability is unquestioned, but whose nerve has proved an Achilles heel. Holt insists he is no bottler and, as a qualifier, a tie against Joe Perry is the best he could have wished for.

Hector Nunns