O'Sullivan plans tactical assault

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The Independent Online

The consensus on the volatile genius that is Ronnie O'Sullivan is that he is the finest player ever to wield a snooker cue. Too mentally fragile to sustain a challenge over 17 days to win the Embassy World Championship, of course, but for sheer talent even Stephen Hendry is left behind.

In a sense even O'Sullivan's victory in the Regal Scottish Open last Sunday counts against his becoming world champion in Sheffield on 1 May because no one could depend on the 24-year-old world No 4 maintaining consistency for two events running. Brilliant, infuriating, he is an enigma to himself as much as others.

"If I keep my discipline I will be in with a shout at Sheffield," O'Sullivan said after beating Mark Williams 9-1 in the final at Aberdeen. "We all want to become world champion and I'm no different." The if in his case is bigger than for others as his concentration can disappear with the flick of a switch.

Nevertheless there were encouraging signs for O'Sullivan in Aberdeen, most prominently the unyielding hold he took on the final. Normally his ability is reined back by his carelessness but against Williams he made hardly a mistake. He was even tactically astute, and there are people who thought they would never use that description in his context.

O'Sullivan begins his world championship campaign at the Crucible tomorrow against the world ranked No 60 David Gray and, if there is such a thing as a favourable draw, he has it. "Sometimes your name is on the trophy," he said after winning in Scotland; he will hope the same engraver of fate has been at work at the World Championship.

Williams was scathing about his form in Aberdeen, saying "I've got no chance if I repeat that", but the Welshman has been uncomplimentary about his form for most of the season and he has collected the UK Championship and the Thailand Masters and reached four other finals. That has put him 7,950 points ahead of Hendry at the top of the rankings list and he is certain of being world No 1 no matter what happens at the Crucible. That he is good enough to win the world title is beyond conjecture, he just needs to prove it.

Williams' path is not gold paved because he is likely to meet Stephen Lee in the quarter-finals and then the 1998 champion John Higgins, who had been relatively quiet until the Irish Masters, where he beat Hendry 9-4 in the final. But he is quietly confident and is one of the few players not concerned about points. "I can give it a good go now that the pressure of the rankings situation is off me," Williams said.

Higgins is scheduled to meet Steve Davis in the second round, a stage that is ripe with possibilities as Hendry could continue his odyssey with Jimmy White and O'Sullivan might play Peter Ebdon, the 1996 runner-up. If that suggests a tournament that is difficult to predict, the bookmakers agree with you and even Hendry, the favourite, is quoted at 3/1.

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