A man troubled by his genius

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The Independent Online
Who knows what demons lie in the psyche of a young man whose parents both have a prison record? Or how they will manifest themselves once that mind has the confidence, the energy or the need to let them out?

The confused soul of Ronnie O'Sullivan probably did not know either until Sunday, when he attacked an assistant press officer at the Embassy World Snooker Championship. The dam broke and the pent-up pressures of an adolescence of trouble and expectation poured out.

In hindsight, those who know the 20-year-old from Chigwell, north-east of London, say the signs had been there for some time. "The problem is he doesn't want to play snooker any more," someone who has followed O'Sullivan's career since he exploded into the sport four years ago, said. Instead, it appears that he wants to "sit on a beach" and make lots of money from his assets.

That is an opinion that O'Sullivan might counter, although there have been enough instances of his voicing his disenchantment. But a new force seems to have gripped the world No 3 now, a need to challenge authority.

Prior to his arrival in Sheffield, in snooker terms this rebelliousness had been pointless and petty; inappropriate scruffiness at an official reception sponsored by the Maltese government, being reported to the game's governing body for urinating on a wall and using profane language in Plymouth, hitting the balls in matches with aimless and careless frustration.

Away from snooker, however, the indications have been more serious. He once smashed a neon light demonstrating his driving skills in a car park, while he is still serving a year's ban for doing 133mph on the M3 in February 1995.

All irresponsible, but causing no harm to others. It has been since he has arrived at The Crucible that third parties have become involved in what has seemed a determined attempt on self-destruction. Bear in mind that until nine days ago his only disciplinary punishment within the sport occurred at the age of 11, when he threw a bread roll at a junior event which hit an official, and what has happened in Sheffield screams out as a cry for help.

In the first round, he angered his opponent, Alain Robidoux, with calculated insults that ranged from playing left-handed to refusing to shake hands. "He didn't deserve respect," was among the comments that provoked a World Professional Billiards and Snooker inquiry planned for after the tournament. "I can play better left-handed than he can right."

Later, typically, he was apologetic. "It wasn't me saying those things," he said, and he probably does not feel it was the real Ronnie who attacked the assistant press officer, Michael Ganley, for what was a trivial argument about who should be in the press room.

The tragedy of O'Sullivan's latest, most serious, charge is that for years people have wondered how he stayed so unaffected by the turbulence in his private life. His father, also called Ronnie, is serving a life sentence for murder, while his mother, Maria, was in prison for seven months for pounds 250,000 tax evasion in connection with her husband's pornography business.

Yet amid events that would have blown even the most adjusted child off the rails, O'Sullivan coped. He kept in regular touch with his father - "he can still give me a kick up the backside on the phone" - and even took pride in looking after his mother. "I had to grow up quickly," he said. "I became the man in the house."

He also matured quickly on the snooker table. At the age of 16, while his father's trial was in progress at the Old Bailey, he won 74 of 76 matches in Blackpool, qualifying for the 1992-93 world ranking events. A week before his 18th birthday, he beat Stephen Hendry to win the UK Championship and since he has collected the 1994 British Open and 1995 Masters.

Only when his mother went to jail, where her son's fame guaranteed intimidatory treatment from the inmates at Holloway, did the family turmoil affect him. Then he admitted he had problems attaching great importance to a trivial existence of putting balls into pockets. He had problems practising and before Christmas lost three first-round matches in four.

Even though his mother has been released, the devil-may-care attitude and the belief that he was destined for greatness has been eroded as the titles have not arrived at the rate that seemed possible four years ago. Hendry, not O'Sullivan, is predominant and it is perhaps the knowledge that this year's tournament represents his last chance to supplant Hendry as the youngest world champion that has preyed on his mind.

His whole demeanour in Sheffield has suggested his nerves are as tight as a drum. As a sequel to his Robidoux comments, he followed his second- round match by saying he was playing the best snooker of his life, when it was obvious he was not. He was winding up journalists, we were told later, although it was his brain which appeared to be spinning. He also hardly ever frequents the press room where once he was a semi-permanent fixture.

Two statements spring to mind in the light of O'Sullivan's recent actions, the first from the man himself. "It's a nightmare," he said after losing in the first round of the International Open in February, "and I'm just not enjoying what I'm doing. If I carry on like this, I'll end up in the nut house."

Robidoux last week also feared for the prodigy's future. "Most of us would die to have his God-given talent," he said. "So why on earth does he want to behave like that?"

That question has been asked a few times since Sunday. Probably no more so than by O'Sullivan himself.