Ronnie O’Sullivan, like a fine wine, is getting better with age. Although there have often been doubts about his desire to keep performing at the highest level, the 38-year-old returns to snooker’s greatest stage today in an ominously focused frame of mind.
O’Sullivan is back at the Crucible, attempting to win a third successive world title and join an elite group to have won it half a dozen times at the Sheffield theatre: the others are Stephen Hendry (seven titles) and Steve Davis (six).
“I had started to believe I needed to retire as I could no longer play at the level I wanted to, but I am proving myself wrong,” O’Sullivan said. “Age doesn’t seem to be a problem and if anything I am playing better and stronger than I ever have.
“The last couple of seasons have been a bit of an experiment really, to see if I could still compete with the other guys [while] not playing as much. Last year at the Crucible, after a year out, was a bit of a one-off. But this season when I have played I have done well, so it is working.”
O’Sullivan decided not to play in a major tournament last season, to spend more time with his two young children. But then he announced that he intended to return to the table in Sheffield in order to defend his title. He proceeded to destroy the field on the way to his fifth world title. “Remember, I didn’t play one tournament before the Crucible last year,” said O’Sullivan, who begins his defence today against Finnish qualifier Robin Hull, the world No 122 and lowest-ranked player in the tournament. “That wasn’t ideal preparation and I got away with one, but it gave me perspective and showed me what was possible.
“Searching for your game and trying to make it happen isn’t always the right way; you get fixated by looking for perfection. I have done that, but no more.
“In the Masters final this year, Mark Selby was the reigning champion and I was the reigning world champion going into the final, although I hadn’t played much in the season and I was 30-odd in the world rankings. I was playing one of the top guys and I was enjoying the challenge and the buzz. But I thought to myself, ‘These are the guys who are meant to be winning the World Championship.’ And I was winning. And if that’s the best snooker has got to offer, well I’m still competing with them. It was a good feeling.” O’Sullivan won that final 10-4.
He believes burnout is one of the main reasons why some of the biggest names in the sport have not impressed at the Crucible in recent times. “A lot of players are coming into the World Championships having played a lot of snooker, and in some cases having fought for their top-16 place,” he said.
“It surprises me they are not looking to other sportspeople like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, even Premier League footballers have two squads – they don’t play every time. And I’m astonished that snooker players are either so insecure about their own ability, or frightened of something, that they can’t pick and choose what they play in.
“I tried [playing every tournament] and got ill; my body broke down and I couldn’t manage it. I would put quality over quantity every time. I don’t understand why you would want to arrive at the World Championship dried up, as some have. The people who do well this year may be those who haven’t gone deep into events all year.”
Hendry is surprised how few players have challenged O’Sullivan. “I think other players are afraid of him now,” said the Scot, who retired two years ago. “It’s what I had in the 1990s, and it’s a great feeling when you know people are scared of you. Ronnie starts so quickly and doesn’t really give these players the chance to get into the match.”