Snooker: Damien Hirst eyes another Ronnie O'Sullivan masterpiece

Maestro in a very different field is cheering on his close friend's bid for sixth world title in Sheffield
Click to follow
The Independent Sport

Team Ronnie O'Sullivan have not been overstaffed at the Crucible Theatre this year. No family, no manager and a desire to keep distractions to a minimum. But there has been room in his corner for the artist Damien Hirst and sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters.

They have helped O'Sullivan stay on course at the Dafabet World Championship in Sheffield. In the best-of-35-frame final today and tomorrow the 38-year-old O'Sullivan will seek a hat-trick of world titles and a sixth in all that would equal the tallies of Steve Davis and Ray Reardon and leave him one adrift of Stephen Hendry.

Peters has shuttled between his Yorkshire base and Liverpool this week, where other high-profile clients at Anfield needed lifting. So the constant has been Hirst. The friendship is genuine and Hirst's presence at a tournament, whether watching in the arena or frequenting the players' room, canteen or media centre, appears to keep O'Sullivan calm, relaxed and focused – a huge change from even three years ago, when snooker seemed to have become an ordeal to be suffered. It is common to see them sharing a salad in what is usually the green room for the principal actors at the Crucible.

Hirst's fascination with O'Sullivan's brand of snooker stemmed from the perceived affinity of the mathematical and geometrical aspects of his art with the natural ability and panache O'Sullivan brings to the table. Now Hirst fishes the balls out of the pockets in practice for arguably the game's greatest-ever player, and dabbles himself on tables at his Devon pile and the Groucho Club.

Both men have generated their fair share of controversy over the years battling various demons, including drink and drugs, and enduring hailstorms of criticism and outrage for some of their actions. This shared experience is perhaps why O'Sullivan is so close to Hirst.

The artist believes anything performed to the level produced by O'Sullivan is an art form, and in the past has compared the player to the painter Francis Bacon.

"It has been up and down like a yo-yo for Ronnie this year," Hirst said at the Crucible yesterday. "Ronnie used to go on about his negativity and I'd be the positive one, but he's got me being negative now. I think I'm more worried about his cue tip than anything else, which was giving him problems. I used to think all that was in his head but now it's in my head, so I'm not so sure.

"But Ronnie is always brilliant, you look at snooker and you think that it is geometry that is going to get you out of trouble – but it is more fluid than that, and he humanises it.

"It is the most mentally challenging sport. I have got a snooker table at home, I have had some lessons and can pot a few balls. But put three people in the room watching me and I miss everything. I can't imagine what it is like doing it in the Crucible in front of that crowd and on live television.

"I will be more nervous than he will be in the final, it is just nerve-racking especially with Ronnie, because you don't know when he will perform or not. The more world titles you get the harder it is to get another. There is enough pressure winning a single frame, let alone matches."

Yet the defending champion is on course to overhaul more records, notably two belonging to Hendry: seven world titles and 775 career centuries. O'Sullivan is just 30 short of the latter mark, and the former champion Davis said: "The jigsaw puzzle is complete for Ronnie with his mental approach. He's not the mercurial, flawed genius of the past any more. He's just a fully paid-up genius now. He never gets trapped in a cage in a match, he's like a free bird.

"This year is a key year if he wants to do it, become an eight-time world champion. But I do believe he's going to push the barriers of winning this into his forties. Ronnie is fit, which helps a lot. And he can win it eight times if he keeps playing the way he is.

"It seems fitting that the most naturally talented player to have played the game would win eight world titles. It's certainly his right to win a sixth world title and join me and Ray Reardon. And, with no disrespect to Stephen, I do feel as though Ronnie is the most amazing player we've ever seen.

"The next milestone is whether any player will make a thousand centuries. Ronnie is the best placed by a mile to do that. These records will be broken."

The odd couple

Career highlight

O'Sullivan Hitting a 147 in 5min 20sec in 1997

Hirst Making £111m in a two-day sale of his work at Sotheby's in 2008

Likely to be found playing at

O'Sullivan The Crucible

Hirst The Groucho Club

What they say about each other

O'Sullivan "I didn't have a clue about pickled sharks and horses until I met him"

Hirst "To me, he's like Picasso or perhaps Francis Bacon"

Other jobs

O'Sullivan Working on a pig farm in 2013

Hirst Directed Blur's "Country House" video

Notable rivals

O'Sullivan Stephen Hendry

Hirst David Hockney

How they describe themselves now

O'Sullivan "I am up and down like a whore's drawers"

Hirst "I'm not the mad bastard shouting at the world any more"