Snooker: O'Sullivan returns as Artful Dodger but leaves as the Rocket

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The Independent Online

Shortly after 4.30pm here yesterday at the Saga Insurance Masters, Ronnie O'Sullivan acknowledged prolonged applause with a wave of his arm and a punch of the air. Following his walk-out at 4-1 down to Stephen Hendry in last month's UK Championships, for which he still faces the prospect of disciplinary action, it was as if the double world champion had never been away.

A 6-1 win over his former practice partner Ally Carter that included two century breaks and two in the 90s earned him a quarter-final against Ken Doherty and reminded all that, when the mood is on him, O'Sullivan can reduce this complex game to a thing of simplicity. Such is genius. But on a day when O'Sullivan did all that was expected of him, save for submitting to a press conference, it emerged that the Masters might easily have seen another high-profile absentee: none other than the world champion, Graeme Dott.

The Scot revealed after losing 6-2 in his opening match against Stephen Lee that he had considered missing the event because of a pressing personal concern. It later transpired that Dott's wife, Elaine, recently visited hospital for an early pregnancy scan which showed up a possible cyst or cancer, the test results for which will be known within a couple of days.

"What's happened is much more important than snooker," Dott said.

O'Sullivan's career has veered periodically towards oblivion since he emerged as this event's youngest winner in 1995 aged 19. Yesterday he maintained his refusal to elaborate on the "personal reasons" why he had not finished his previous match. Given his unpredictability, there was a faint air of tension in the arena before he made his official return to the fold.

O'Sullivan entered, bearing his cue and the ghost of a smile. He looked more like the Artful Dodger than a Rocket, but after a cautious opening he lived up to his soubriquet with a break of 91 that left his 27-year-old opponent, who has broken into the top 16 this season, looking dazed. It might have been a case of pre-traumatic stress disorder.

"I wasn't sure what sort of reception I would get today," O'Sullivan said afterwards, before speculating on a winner. "Whoever here finds form, you have to fancy them." By that reckoning, the bookies are not wrong to have him as 3-1 favourite.

Carter said: "I tried to tell myself beforehand just to play the balls. But Ronnie potted them all."

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