Snooker: 'Rocket' needs to find Rocky factor, says Davis

As World Championship begins, veteran urges O'Sullivan to play the underdog as best means to sharpen his appetite for winning
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The Independent Online

Steve Davis knows that Ronnie O'Sullivan has been more pussycat than feline predator in recent months – but the six-times world champion has warned the Crucible field to be wary of a wounded beast acquiring the eye of the tiger.

The World Championship which starts today is one of the most eagerly anticipated for years, with World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn's revolution firmly under way, and the John Higgins "frame-fixing" affair of last year a fading memory.

Though the world No 1 and this year's favourite was cleared of all corruption, picking up a six-month ban on disrepute charges, a sport almost on its knees was forced to strip itself down and start restoring a tarnished image, with integrity units and innovation.

With now almost a full 12 months under his belt officially at the helm, Hearn has made significant progress, introducing a successful one-frame "Shootout", a new 13-tournament series, and giving much needed fluidity to an archaic ranking system.

As with his predecessors, the "What do you do with O'Sullivan?" issue remains. Hearn talked the reluctant star out of retiring in January, and last week saw the three-times world champion pull out of the Sheffield showpiece, before changing his mind.

O'Sullivan's presence tends to loom large but the shadow he casts over the field this year is markedly less distinct. He has slipped to world No 10, lost four first-round matches in succession, and has been much criticised for skipping 12 tournaments this season.

But Davis, while convinced others are ready to grab some spotlight this year, believes that acting out the part of an underdog, and specifically the Rocky character made famous by Sylvester Stallone in the boxing films, could help O'Sullivan to rouse himself.

The 53-year-old, the toast of Sheffield last year after a famous win over Higgins but who missed out this season, said: "There must be a price at which Ronnie O'Sullivan, for all his poor form and threats to pull out, becomes a decent bet.

"Maybe it's the big one he needs to get himself up for, and that's the only event that will do it for him these days. The Crucible could just inspire him. We all like a fairy-tale story, him winning this year would almost be that. If at some stage in a tournament you start to think you're like Rocky in the film – I was a bit like this last year, wanting to be the heroic underdog – then you're a dangerous animal.

"If he can pretend or play the part of that underdog for a couple of matches, it might be the thing that works for him. It can only last so long, if you start playing brilliantly, but it might just get you up and running."

O'Sullivan plays Welshman Dominic Dale on Monday, but if organisers were praying the draw would throw up a cracking tie to get the party started, fate has handed them a match to savour in the world No 14 Judd Trump, a 21-year-old who won the China Open just a fortnight ago, against the defending champion Neil Robertson today.

The notion that more regular competition has raised the collective bar, after the years of just six ranking events, is shared by world No 41 Davis, who will have to content himself with watching the drama pan out solely from the television studio this year.

And the veteran competitor, who steadfastly refuses to retire with increasingly rare victories still a thrill, fervently hopes that the Crucible 2011 vintage is remembered not only as a classic tournament, but a watershed for snooker. He added: "With all the changes made, it has been a very exciting season for snooker. This becomes the first World Championship to really see the benefits of what has happened, notably the sea change in the overall standard.

"The alterations have done what they were supposed to do, make it a more aggressive, sink-or-swim sort of environment. It really is all to play for, and nobody is safe any more. You get people who thrive on that, and probably some who don't. But there has never been a better time to break through as a young player."

Three To Watch: Precocious talent and the potting machine

Judd Trump: Odds 33-1

The talented 21-year-old has been handed the toughest possible start to his first appearance at the Crucible. Nicknamed "Haircut 100", Trump will face the defending champion, Neil Robertson, on Saturday. However, he is unlikely to be fazed by the task, having already defeated the Australian in last year's Austrian Open final.

Mark Williams: Odds 8-1

One of the finest long potters ever to have played the sport, Williams has been in fine fettle so far this season. The 36-year-old Welshman, who last won the title back in 2003, knows that a strong tournament could see him reclaim the No 1 spot, less than three years after plummeting to No 47 in the world.

Ding Junhui: Odds 8-1

The Chinese star has already amassed more than 200 century breaks, despite only just turning 24. Ding also became the youngest player to record a televised 147 at the age of 19 years and 7 months during the 2007 Masters, and is well fancied to be in the reckoning.

Michael Lynch

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