Snooker: Matters of life and death shadow the return of the Rocket

Snooker's tortured genius is battling to maintain his form and interest in the game, Nick Harris writes
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Ronnie O'Sullivan is due to return to action this afternoon for the first time since his mid-match walkout in last month's UK Championship quarter-finals, but matters of life, death and salvation will still be taking precedence over something as relatively trivial as playing snooker.

When he cues off against Ali Carter in the first round of the Masters at Wembley at 2.30pm, it is unlikely there will be a repeat of the dramatics seen in York - he conceded at 4-1 down against Stephen Hendry and walked out - but neither should anybody expect "the Rocket" suddenly to return to his exceptional best.

The life in question is that of his youngest child, to whom his long-term girlfriend, Jo, gave birth to last year. That caused the world's most naturally gifted player to re-evaluate again whether he still wants to endure the often unsustainable pressures that come from trying to combine top-level sport with chronic depression.

There has been a notable trend of significant players suffering sustained falls in form after having children in recent years, with those affected including Hendry, Mark Williams and John Higgins, to name just three former world champions. O'Sullivan's focus has always been more erratic anyway, and he has now hinted in the build-up to the Masters that family life is one factor affecting his game. "I've got other things in my life now and snooker has slipped down the pecking order in terms of my focus," he said.

The death in question was that of Paul Hunter, one of O'Sullivan's best friends on the tour, who died from cancer, aged 27, in October. Memories of Hunter, a three-times Masters winner, will loom large all week.

The salvation - of a personal nature for O'Sullivan and a professional one for the game as a whole - is an ongoing burden. For years O'Sullivan has been snooker's No 1 draw, its major personality, its key selling point, its most powerful headline-grabber. He has constantly been reminded of that by the powers that be.

The tragic passing of Hunter - the only other figure with such pin-up status, and an image able to transcend the game and attract new fans - has only added to O'Sullivan's sense that he is increasingly carrying the snooker world on his shoulders. The issue is of how much snooker relies on him is irrelevant. That the tortured genius feels it does, and heavily, is everything.

It also means that when he comes in for criticism, as after York, he feels vilified for who he is, not what he does - a key difference. "I can't reverse York and what is done is done," he said. "Everything I did there felt right at the time... But some, including former players, have had their say in the media and gone overboard, which is a real disappointment to me. To be honest, it even made me question whether I want to be part of it.

"It also made me wonder whether they have got a problem with what happened, or whether they've just got a problem with me in general. But I am not going to go around brown-nosing and sucking up to certain individuals because they think differently from me and the majority of other people who might understand my situation."

O'Sullivan has been in the past three Masters finals, losing 10-9 to Higgins last year, beating Higgins in 2005 and losing 10-9 to Hunter in 2004. He also appeared in a hat-trick of finals in the 1990s, including winning his first, at 19, in 1995. Even below his best, he is capable of beating most people - but only if he truly still wants to, which remains to be seen.