The Rocket's science is all in the mind

World Snooker Championship: Hendry challenges for eighth title as a supreme talent wrestles his demons
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While all great players can make snooker look easy, only Ronnie O'Sullivan can make it look absurdly easy. His astonishing hand-eye co-ordination accounts for the speed and deftness of touch epitomised in snooker's fastest-ever 147 - 5min 20sec at the Crucible three years ago. As a relief from routine practice, he taught himself to make century breaks left-handed.

And yet, reflecting his manic-depressive tendencies, there is a greater disparity between his best standard and his worst, not just from day to day but within the same match, than any of the other authentic world title contenders. Even this unpredictability enhances his star quality.

Last Sunday, O'Sullivan overwhelmed Mark Williams, the circuit's runaway No 1, 9-1 to win the Regal Scottish Open in Aberdeen. "I'll be on cloud nine for a few days," he said, but he needs to be as focused as he was that day in the granite city for this attempt to fulfil his responsibility to his own talent. "I was better when I was 13," he said - accurately enough - on one of his poorer days in Aberdeen. Certainly, life was simpler then. No pressure, no worries, money in the family, a 147 in the English Amateur Championship when he was 15.

At 16, he turned profess-ional, winning 74 of his first 76 matches in a summer of qualifying competitions at Blackpool. His father, on trial at the Old Bailey at the time, is now serving a life sentence for murder. His mother, a sleeping director of some of her husband's businesses, was briefly jailed for VAT offences.

His sense of life's certainties was shattered, only sporadically glued together by his talent. He won the UK title a week before his 18th birthday and again in 1997; he won the Benson & Hedges Masters in 1995 but lost to several nonentities as well, often finding it difficult to summon much joy in playing or stomach for the fight.

His habitual cheerfulness became periodically overlaid by darker moods and his spirits sank so low at the Regal Scottish Masters in October 1998 - even though he won it - that his manager, Ian Doyle, arranged for him to consult a psychotherapist. Suffering from nervous exhaustion, he left the circuit for six weeks.

O'Sullivan is continuing with regular sessions of treatment but believes that the full benefit will not show through for a while yet. His depressions do not descend so frequently nor last as long, but the bottom line is that, as each year has passed, he has experienced a growing anxiety to claim the titles - above all the world title - that his unique talents suggest are his due. His inconsistency maddens him. His worst quality as a match player, a low tolerance of frustration, persistently threatens to undo him. "Everyone tells me to stick in there but it's so frustrating because it's life, not just a game, to me," he said.

As in Aberdeen, though, where four of his first five matches went the full distance, it can make fascinating viewing. In his opening match there against Dave Finbow, he declared a foul on himself in prime position, which replays proved he had not committed. Finbow made 74 from that to lead 2-0 and ran him to 5-4.

Next, against the flamboyant Australian No 1, Quinten Hann, who has some of O'Sullivan's instinctive talent but none of his desire to change those aspects of his approach which tend to undermine it, there was turbo-charged progress to 4-0 in only 38 minutes. Six minutes, 40 seconds of this was expended on snooker's second-fastest 147, his second of a season in which the circuit has produced a record nine in all.

Yet, with Hann coming back strongly with the assistance of an outrageously favourable run of the balls, he almost lost. Eventually, O'Sullivan won 5-4 by clearing from yellow to pink, left-handed, in the decider.

Finally, his frustration boiled over as a steady Scot, Marcus Campbell, nibbled away at O'Sullivan's 4-2 lead. O'Sullivan was still leading 4-3 when, a mere four points behind, with five reds still left, he impulsively conceded. This seemed to clear his mind for a while. He won the decider with a 76 break and completed a 5-1 quarter-final win over Dave Harold in style.

Again, his form slithered away like a bar of soap in the semi-final as he trailed 4-0 at the interval to Graeme Dott, the young Scot who plays Steve Davis at the Crucible this week to decide, barring a Tale of the Very Unlikely, who takes the last place in snooker's top 16 next year.

His attitude was transformed, O'Sullivan freely acknowledges, by his 6ft 9in guru, Del Hill, by whose self-created lake in Stamford, Lincolnshire, he has frequently sought peace of mind with rod and line. "If there hadn't been an interval, I'd have lost 6-0," said O'Sullivan. "We had a good talk in the interval, about lots of things, and that put me back on track."

O'Sullivan recovered to win 6-5 before administering the 9-1 trouncing in the final which Williams good-naturedly admitted was "not the send-off I wanted for Sheffield".

So is this O'Sullivan's year at the Crucible? "Everyone knows this game's all about what's in your head. The only player I'm really worried about is me."