Snooker World Championship 2014: 'The Rocket' Ronnie O'Sullivan holds no fear for Robin Hull after horror illness

The 39-year-old Finn was struck down with a potentially life-threatening virus in 2002

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The Independent Online

Taking on Ronnie O'Sullivan in the first round of the World Championship at the Crucible can be a daunting prospect for even the most battle-hardened of players. But for Robin Hull, it bears no comparison to some of the terrifying experiences life has thrown at him.

The 39-year-old Finn was struck down with a potentially life-threatening virus in 2002 which left doctors baffled. The illness badly affected his balance and eventually left him virtually paralysed down the right side of his body.

Then, after making what seemed to be a miraculous recovery and dragging himself back to the table, Hull was forced to pull out of qualifying for the 2007 World Championship due to an irregular heartbeat thought to be linked to his past illness, and then quit the game completely after suffering a similar problem the following year.

Which makes his achievement of qualifying for snooker's most prestigious tournament, to take on the sport's No 1 attraction and defending champion, all the more remarkable.

"It's mad really," Hull said after the draw was made. The Finn is ranked No 122 in the world and came through four rounds of qualifying to reach the Crucible – but he is just happy to be able to pick up his cue.

"I'm just glad to still be playing," he said. "I saw that many doctors when I was really ill, they didn't really know what was wrong with me. They didn't know what was happening, but knew I had some neurological problems.

"I remember this time when I was in the neurologist's office and he told me I could either have a tumour, some sort of really bad infection in my brain or that my brain was bleeding. To be honest, I was shitting myself.

"I lost the feeling to the right-hand side of my body and was left with a club foot, so it was a pretty horrible time.Things weren't great in my private life either, so it was really hard to deal with everything. I quit the game and went to find a relaxed, stress-free life back in Finland. So to be back playing, and to be back at the Crucible, well, it is a fairy tale."

Hull, who has twice reached the quarter-finals of a ranking tournament (the 2003 Welsh Open and 2006 Malta Cup), won a European amateur title earlier this season to earn his place at the World Championship qualifying event in Sheffield, before going on to win four gruelling best-of-19-frame matches to get to the Crucible itself.

He beat Maltese veteran Tony Drago (10-3), Chinese player Tian Pengfei (10-6) and English pro Ian Burns (10-4) in the opening three rounds of qualifying. But it was the final qualifier where Hull really made his mark when he defeated the 2002 world champion Peter Ebdon 10-8 to earn his place against O'Sullivan.

And it's no wonder Hull is relishing facing "The Rocket" – a five-times World Champion and generally accepted to be the most gifted player to have played the game. "I'm really happy to have drawn him, it's a great match," said Hull. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm going to be the underdog, but I can't afford to think about that.

"For me, it's about controlling the outside distractions of playing Ronnie and doing my own thing on the table. I'm going to make sure I don't lose my eye off the game so I can get the maximum out of myself.

"The Crucible is so special, especially for the players who have to come through all the qualifying because it's so hard. Snooker is lucky to have Ronnie O'Sullivan at the end of the day. He's a rare talent and a fantastic player.

"He seems to be settled now, so I'm sure he'll be confident about his chance of winning the title. But I'm not scared of playing him."

And, after what Hull has been through, that comes as no surprise.

Crucible draw: First round details (all matches best of 19 frames)

1 R O'Sullivan (Eng) v R Hull (Fin); 16 J Perry (Eng) v J Burnett (Scot); 9 M Fu (HK) v M Gould (Eng); 8 S Murphy (Eng) v J Cope (Eng); 5 B Hawkins (Eng) v D Gilbert (Eng); 12 R Walden (Eng) v K Wilson (Eng); 13 M Davis (Eng) v D Dale (Wal); 4 D Junhui (China) v M Wasley (Eng); 3 M Selby (Eng) v M White (Wales); 14 A Carter (Eng) v X Guodong (China); 11 J Higgins (Scot) v A McManus (Scot); 6 S Bingham (Eng) v K Doherty (Ire); 7 J Trump (Eng) v T Ford (Eng); 10 S Maguire (Scot) v R Day (Wal); 15 M Allen (NI) v M Holt (Eng); 2 N Robertson (Aus) v R Williams (Eng)