Ronnie O'Sullivan has threatened to turn his back on snooker a number of times and last night the game was wondering whether their great maverick had finally matched his words with action. The 31-year-old's decision to quit his UK Championship quarter-final against Stephen Hendry in the middle of the match certainly suggested he has had enough.
O'Sullivan was true to his nickname as he left York like a rocket after a bizarre concession when 4-1 down in the first-to-nine clash, although a statement later claimed it will be Ronnie as normal again, any time now. "I am a fighter," it read, "and I will be back on my feet fighting stronger and harder than ever very soon."
It did not go as far, however, to say when and where he will return and a few influential voices are even prepared to ponder aloud if rushing back is such a good idea for O'Sullivan or for snooker. "If Ronnie is genuinely not enjoying the game," said John Parrott, the former world champion, "and if it is making him that unhappy then perhaps it's best he walks away. His health is the most important thing." O'Sullivan's health to be frank his mental health has long been an area of worry. With a father in jail, a mother who has been in jail, and with the drug problems and fights that have characterised his battle with depression, O'Sullivan has been a man in need. And he still is.
Ironically, stark evidence that his illness still rages was provided at this same tournament a year ago. Then, O'Sullivan sat for the duration of his second-round defeat against Mark King with a towel over his head. It was irrational, but pure O'Sullivan, attracting headlines of mirth, before those of concern.
It had been a similar story in 1996 when he played left-handed and won against Alain Robidoux in the World Championships. The young Englishman was summoned to a disciplinary hearing where he was asked to prove he could play to a professional standard left-handed. Three winning frames later, against Rex Williams, and the charge of bringing the game into disrepute was dropped. And so the cracks had merely been masked by his own undoubted genius.
Inevitably, they would resurface again, a couple of days later in fact, when he was found guilty of assaulting an official. O'Sullivan was given a two-year suspended ban, a £20,000 fine and advised to donate £10,000 to charity and not misbehave again. The warning had limited effect. In 1998, he was stripped of the Irish Open title after testing positive for marijuana. With trademark honesty he said: "My life is in a mess."
The feuds with fellow players did not help. Before his 2002 World Championship semi-final against yesterday's opponent, Hendry, O'Sullivan announced that he intended to send the seven-time world champion "back to his sad little life". Next he picked on Mark Williams, the then world No 1, declaring that few on the circuit liked the Welshman. " Stupid people say stupid things," said Williams, although in private he urged the authorities to take action and assist O'Sullivan.
In fairness to O'Sullivan, he has sought treatment, including anti-depressants and visits to the Priory. O'Sullivan has also ventured into the unconventional for answers. A couple of years ago, for instance, he became interested in Buddhism.
"Some feller came up to me, a dentist I think he'd been, and said, 'Read this book and tell me what you think'," recalled O'Sullivan. "The book was called The Power of Now. What was the book's message? Stop thinking and stop being mad. I've tried everything. I've tried religion, Prozac. They've never done it for me." But before yesterday, O'Sullivan had never given up. Starting all over again may not prove so easy.