Ronnie O’Sullivan used a Latvian teenager as a sparring partner last week in the build-up to the Dafabet World Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. And it is to be hoped that young Rodion Judin was not so demoralised by the experience of fishing the balls out of the pockets that he goes on to fulfil his huge potential as the best player to emerge from the Baltic states, where snooker is booming.
O’Sullivan, 38, arrived at his spiritual home hoping to embark on a run that would take him to a hat-trick of world titles, and a sixth in all – a mark that would equal the tally of Steve Davis and leave him one short of the record set by Stephen Hendry.
The man known to all as the “Rocket” remains by some distance the brightest star in World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn’s firmament, and he was greeted as every bit the returning hero by a capacity crowd of 980 packed in to the small but iconic venue.
O’Sullivan was supported in the arena by artist Damien Hirst, a close friend, and Dr Steve Peters, the sports psychiatrist who turned his career around and is working with Liverpool and the England World Cup squad.
Attempting to stem the tide was Finland’s Robin Hull, 39, who had every justification for being happy just to be in the building having been forced into retirement six years ago. Hull, ranked 120th in the world, suffered from a virus that left him unable to walk in a straight line and also an irregular heartbeat. A brave man, then, to lock horns with such a force of snooker nature.
He could not live with O’Sullivan in the opening exchanges, and had to watch as his opponent rattled in breaks of 124, 69, 81, 60 and 90 to forge into a 7-2 lead after the first session of their best-of-19 frame first-round encounter, with the match finishing last night. Hull did not disgrace himself, making breaks of 102 and 60 for his two frames of the session. But he lost a potentially pivotal fifth frame when O’Sullivan obtained the snooker he needed to move 4-1 ahead.
O’Sullivan openly questioned on the eve of the tournament why other players did not follow his lead and take more breaks during the season, insisting recent evidence suggest they are suffering from burn-out by the time they get to the biggest tournament of all. The line he treads between staying fresh and not being under-cooked would be a fine one were it not for an ability that seems to transcend such trifles, and, of course, he is armed with the knowledge of having won last year despite taking an entire season off.
This season O’Sullivan has played more but still limited his schedule, winning as often as not when competing, lifting the trophy at the Masters, Champion of Champions and the Welsh Open.
Hendry believes that, even if not this year, O’Sullivan will match or beat his achievements in Sheffield: “It’s inevitable, basically, that he’s going to beat my record of seven world titles. At the moment he’s the only player who is going to do it.”
The 1997 champion Ken Doherty, 44, was delighted to secure a 19th appearance at the Crucible after coming through final qualifying last week, and gave a good account of himself against Stuart Bingham. Doherty grabbed the final frame of the session and trails 5-4 going into today’s concluding frames.