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Kevin Garside: The Ronnie O’Sullivan psyche is a puzzle for philosophers; when he masters it, the resulting play is a quickfire wonder for all to behold


I can’t tell you how many hours have bled from my life watching world championship snooker. The hypnotic tinkle of resin on resin, overlaid with the emotion and tension of human conflict, stops the clock. There is no sense of past or future when the boys are on the tables, only a present of endlessly unfolding geometry.

The game is fertile ground for the philosopher, the psychoanalyst and the crank. One of the greatest minds in the pantheon of western thought, 18th-century Scottish thinker David Hume, gave up his meditations on life at the age of 24, unable to resist the siren call of billiards and baize. 

His seminal work A Treatise of Human Nature is a core text for all philosophy undergraduates, and perhaps required reading for any who want to understand what is happening when snooker’s most gifted exponent, Ronnie O’Sullivan, is about his business and Terry Griffiths is on the mike.

“Lose control of your mind and you’ve got nothing,” was an early contribution to the sum of human understanding triggered on Saturday during O’Sullivan’s gripping struggle to overcome the infinitely mundane Joe Perry. “We all get wet in the rain,” and “we are all human, we all like to be loved”, were other examples from Terry’s book of homespun wisdom, presumably intended to group O’Sullivan with Perry as members of the same species. On a snooker table, at least, they emphatically are not. 

That velvet Valleys brogue makes Griffiths a gem of a pundit, more often than not deepening the mystery of what it is to be Ronnie O. The great man himself had the guru of the moment, Dr Steve Peters, close at hand in the Crucible audience to keep him pointed in the right direction. Peters has talked Liverpool to within an ace of a first Premier League title and is tasked with removing the mental shackles from Roy Hodgson’s England in Brazil.

Now that would be a result, but a doddle compared to the challenge of untangling the psyche of O’Sullivan in championship fortnight. A brace of century breaks eventually broke the resistance of Perry, whom he had never led until the 23rd frame of 25.

O’Sullivan is seeking a sixth world championship title on the same weekend that brings the undefeated welterweight world champion Floyd Mayweather Jnr to the ring and thousands to Imola to pay tribute to Ayrton Senna on the anniversary of his death at the San Marino Grand Prix.

Though 20 years dead, Senna has lost none of his hold on the motor-racing imagination. Mayweather and O’Sullivan walk the same ground Senna did, separated from the rest not only by a rare gift but by their own understanding of it and of the impact it has on others. With these boys you don’t remember the wins as much as the way they were fashioned. They leave not a number in our heads but impressions.

“Lurching between mediocrity and misery” was how Griffiths summarised O’Sullivan’s performance in that deciding third session on Saturday morning; “but when he is in the balls he’s absolutely brilliant. Even the pros tune in to watch him.”

The manner of his acceleration away from an opponent who for the best part of three sessions had him under the cosh was quintessential O’Sullivan, barely comprehensible even to those who have played the game. O’Sullivan goes about the table like a child running down the stairs on Christmas morning.  He is a car with no brakes, decisions made on the move, the spread of balls noted and considered in a glance before they disappear in a blizzard of hurried potting.

Poor Perry went to the final interval leading 11-9, thinking his time had come. The next thing he knew he was on his feet, O’Sullivan’s outstretched hand advancing towards him. See you next year.

He will be none the wiser then, of course. O’Sullivan is a greater danger to rivals now than he has ever been, and for that he can thank Peters, who has somehow managed to talk him into an alliance with imperfection, introducing a degree of tolerance of mistakes. No longer does he repair to his seat in despair when preternatural standards are not met. Genius is no protection against fallibility, merely the means by which the likes of O’Sullivan separate themselves from the rest when the force is with them.

Mayweather doesn’t blow them all away. Senna didn’t win every race. It’s just that some victories, some heights hit, are beyond the reach of others and the ken of mortal observers, timeless contributions to the great sporting tableau.