Snooker: Ronnie O'Sullivan: Tortured genius

Ronnie O'Sullivan's very public emotional disintegration made for gripping, if disturbing, TV - but also posed fundamental questions about his long-term well-being

Ronnie O' Sullivan's genius should have seen him contesting a world championship semi-final against Shaun Murphy yesterday, a young man who cites God as his guide. O'Sullivan's demons put paid to that, and instead the reigning champion was still absorbing the fallout from his spectacular and gripping quarter-final exit to Peter Ebdon late on Wednesday night, and pondering a year off, possible retirement and a return to his desperate search for some peace between his ears.

Ronnie O' Sullivan's genius should have seen him contesting a world championship semi-final against Shaun Murphy yesterday, a young man who cites God as his guide. O'Sullivan's demons put paid to that, and instead the reigning champion was still absorbing the fallout from his spectacular and gripping quarter-final exit to Peter Ebdon late on Wednesday night, and pondering a year off, possible retirement and a return to his desperate search for some peace between his ears.

The Crucible has played host to some extraordinary dramas but never has the meltdown of a world No 1 occurred in such an extreme or knuckle-biting or public a fashion.

There had been strong pointers all tournament that something was seriously wrong. O'Sullivan said as much himself, both in his words and his actions. Last weekend he said he was "cracking up" after shaving his head on a whim because he thought he "looked rough". Earlier he had shown indifference to winning his first-round match, saying that his "heart wasn't in it" and that he would have been happy to go home.

Expanding on the hollowness he feels, even in pursuit of the world title, the game's most prestigious honour, he said: "It's a drug for 17 days. It's a drug for the week, here and there. But for the amount of buzzes that you get out of it, I know they never last.

"The two times I've won this title [in 2001 and last year], while I was doing it, yeah it was great. The people, the adulation and all that was fantastic. But two hours later I just sat down and I thought, 'Well, is this it?'

"It is a fantastic buzz but there is a price to pay for that and the price that I have paid this year has been far too heavy on me. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

Few, if any, sportsmen have - while being world No 1, reigning world champion and streets ahead of all his rivals in sheer talent - disintegrated so publicly, while using his game's biggest stage as a psychiatrist's chair to vent his turmoil. Paula Radcliffe crashed and burned in the Athens Olympic marathon, and wept afterwards, but even she stopped short of full-blown televised catharsis.

Those close to O'Sullivan feel he might have been seeking solace by airing his pain to the wider world this week. "It could be that public therapy is his way of keeping stable," said one friend, referring to O'Sullivan's battle against serious, long-term clinical depression.

But few expected it to destroy his chances of retaining his world title so dramatically. Ebdon's slow play on Wednesday forced O'Sullivan to stay in his chair for long periods and may have been catalyst for his collapse.

Indeed, if O'Sullivan's Achilles' heel is a loss of focus when denied access to the baize, then Ebdon's tactics exploited the vulnerability to the full.

Not that Ebdon, snooker's steeliest competitor, can be blamed for O'Sullivan's state of mind. As O'Sullivan himself said afterwards, "Peter's got to do what he's got to do. He has a wife and four kids to feed."

The flaw was already there, waiting to re-emerge. O'Sullivan was not strong in the broken places, and he paid for it. He was 8-2 up in the best-of-25 match on Wednesday morning but lost 11 of next 14 frames, including seven of the eight played in an evening session that ended at approaching midnight.

However what was most memorable, albeit in a disturbing way, was not what happened on the table, but O'Sullivan agonised behaviour as the match slipped from him. By the end he had gouged skin from his face with his nails. For long periods he had sat with his head slumped against a wall and a hand over his face. He chewed his fingers, he alternately grinned and grimaced up at Ray Reardon, his mentor, and his behaviour became increasingly erratic.

At one point he stood on Ebdon's chair to see the table - a bizarre first for the Crucible. He almost conceded the 20th frame with 13 reds still on the table, but checked himself with a whisper. He kept on playing a later frame when he needed 10 snookers. He openly laughed at one Ebdon miss, a response, he said, to a consistent groan from an audience member.

And his game, his usual sublime, peerless, fluid, breathtaking game, was error-strewn and ordinary. And O'Sullivan does not do ordinary well.

In the early hours of yesterday, reflecting on his defeat, he said that at least a year away from snooker is now likely. Not for the first time, he also suggested he could quit altogether. "It may be the case I'm saying goodbye," the 29-year-old said.

Set against the backdrop of his emotional outpourings earlier in the week, there was something almost chilling about those words. Talking about his fight with depression, and how he feels it is aggravated by the intensity of striving to be the world's best, he had said: "I'll give it a year, or a couple of years, and see what happens, but I will not be able to [continue playing if depressed]. Physically and mentally, I will probably end up killing myself."

The paradox in O'Sullivan's self-diagnosis is that he believes that the mental toughness and solitude required to be the best causes his depression. Yet he has so far declined to walk away, perhaps knowing that the underlying problem lies elsewhere.

A lack of satisfaction with his achievements, which include winning four of the eight available tour titles this season, also points to some deeper malaise. It is not difficult to suggest reasons, including the traumas of his background, especially his parents' imprisonments.

His father, Ronnie Snr, was sentenced to life for murder when he was 15 and his mother was later jailed for tax evasion. Ronnie Snr's sentence was harsher than anticipated because it was judged that there was a racist element to the killing, a claim that Ronnie Jnr denies, and finds abhorrent, according to friends, who say that Ronnie Snr was happy to live in a multi-ethnic area and had a black god-daughter.

That issue aside, Ronnie Snr's mere incarceration was dreadful for Ronnie Jnr, as he explained two years ago when launching the Prisoners' Families Helpline, a counselling service for relatives of prisoners. "Shock and horror and just sadness and gutted," is how Ronnie Jnr described his father's imprisonment. "I cried for a long time, I was in bits. I remember it being quite difficult because once he was found guilty everyone was in a state of shock."

The stigma has also affected him. "[People] think your dad is a murderer so you must like violence and it couldn't be further from the truth," he said.

According to Professor Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology and health at Lancaster University and an expert in stress, particularly in sportsmen, there is a clear link between the manifestation of O'Sullivan's mental problems in his snooker and his past.

"I think he feels a need to prove himself, more than any other player, in order to be accepted by society," said Professor Cooper, who also has wide experience of depressive illnesses and is an ambassador for the Samaritans.

"He is desperate to prove something and also make psychological recompense for what his parents did. To do that he has to be successful. To be successful he needs to push himself to the limit. Stress is present is all competitive sport but Ronnie also has this desire to cleanse himself through success. But the pressure to do that is probably worse than the pressure of the sport in itself.

"I suspect the hollowness despite winning tournaments is because he is still living with his past. He will never be able to wipe that away. To move forward he needs to accept that whatever his parents did is their responsibility, not his."

What O'Sullivan does next remains to be seen. There were calls from many yesterday, including Ebdon, for him not to retire or even take a break.

Maybe he will pursue a different sport altogether. He confided to one friend last year that he wants to become a professional golfer. "Not No 1 or anything, just a tour professional," the friend said. "He was certain, absolutely certain, that he'd be happy if he could achieve that."

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