Ronnie O’Sullivan returns to the World Championship today claiming he is under no pressure to succeed and that his 12-month sabbatical has allowed him to see “the bigger picture”.
The “Rocket” has been the game’s box-office star for the past 20 years and has won the Crucible title four times. But at 37 he is aiming to become the oldest world champion since Ray Reardon won his sixth title in 1978 – when the professional game was very different – at the age of 45.
Having played only one competitive match all season following a self-imposed break to sort out problems in his personal life, O’Sullivan is throwing himself in at the deep end in Sheffield, and the scrutiny of his progress will be intense.
The former world No 1 admits he does not know whether he is going to fall flat on his face after such a prolonged absence from competitive play, but he has the appetite for the big occasion. And he usually thrives in such situations.
“There is no pressure on me,” O’Sullivan said yesterday. “I still love snooker, but there’s more important things in life. I haven’t played on any match tables for a year, so I’m going into the unknown. At the end of the day I will embrace [the challenge]. There’s a bigger picture now. I might get smashed at Sheffield, but then I’ll be back.”
The defending champion, O’Sullivan, who faces fellow veteran Marcus Campbell in the first round, has struggled with demons throughout a colourful career and, although he admits his personal problems are yet to be resolved, he will be fully focused for arguably the biggest challenge of his career.
“As a professional sportsman you want your private life to be settled, and that hasn’t been the case over the last three years,” O’Sullivan admitted. “Hopefully, they will be resolved. All I know is that I have to make a start. I have tried to put things on hold and get things resolved; if they are not resolved then I will readdress them.”
Opinion among his fellow professionals on O’Sullivan’s return has been mixed. The Australian Neil Robertson, the 2010 world champion, believes it would have been “weird” if O’Sullivan had not defended his title. That view was shared by the 1997 winner Ken Doherty, who said it would have been a “farce” if O’Sullivan had not played in this year’s £1.1m event.
However, four-time world champion John Higgins and fellow Scot Graeme Dott, the 2006 Crucible winner, have both said they “couldn’t care less” what O’Sullivan does, although both added that they were glad to see him defend the title.
But in the eyes of Barry Hearn, the chairman of World Snooker, O’Sullivan’s return to competition has “offered a different dimension”.
“His return is something we all welcome,” Hearn said. “He’s a great, great player. He’s an enigma of a person because, on his day, he’s capable of doing the most amazing of things. It’s great to see he’s picked up a cue again. I think we all can’t wait to see how he plays.”
Right on cue: Three to watch
The Gloucester player is one of six Crucible debutants. Has already beaten former Crucible finalist Judd Trump, one of his good mates, earlier this season in reaching the China Open quarter-finals. Eager to impress and will fancy his chances of causing an upset against first-round opponent Barry Hawkins.
Could this be the Chinese cueman’s year? Reached the semi-finals in 2011 but has been knocked out in the second round or before in five of his last six visits to the Crucible. Has won the UK Championship and the Masters. Gunning for a clean sweep of snooker’s majors. Should prove too strong for first-round opponent Alan McManus.
The Leicester player is another Crucible debutant. Married to a Belarusian snooker referee, Woollaston reached the Players Tour Championship Grand Finals quarter-finals earlier this season and beat the experienced Ryan 10-9 to win. Has a tough task on his hands to beat two-time Crucible finalist Ali Carter, but stranger results have happened.