Now, at the age of 21, Ronnie O'Sullivan thinks that he has finally grown up and is at last ready to fulfil his enormous potential. In a remarkably frank interview, he explains why...
He sits there, cigarette in hand, hair tussled and chin unshaven, in a room in Bournemouth's International Conference Centre which resembles an interview room at a police station.
There are just a couple of wooden chairs, a small, plain table, and breeze- blocks in the walls. He puffs away at his cigarette and, every so often, shakes his left hand nervously, in an up and down movement, that increases in speed the more he confesses.
Ronnie O'Sullivan, the much-troubled, effortlessly brilliant but frequently wayward talent of the green baize has, it seems, finally grown up and, in the course of the hour we spent together, it was pretty clear that over the past 12 months the 21-year-old from Chigwell has been telling himself a few painful home truths.
"I know people look at me and think: 'He's a flash git, and he's got no respect for anyone'," he tells you, looking unflinchingly in your eye. "They couldn't be further from the truth. It's not the real me and it never was. I now understand that I was easily led in the past, often by people around me.
"Maybe I was trying to put on a front and tried to have a hard image to brush people off. I regret that now, but at least I know what are the right things to do. And I know who my friends are."
Has he picked up many so-called "friends" over the years as his wealth and fame have accumulated? "I've made millions of friends, mate," he replies. "I've got more friends than anyone else in the whole world." But in reality? "I can count them on the fingers of one hand. As for the rest, I can smell them coming now, I couldn't before. Then, and I'm only talking about a little over a year ago, I used to think I was the bee's knees, but now I can spot them a mile off. So, instead of it happening to me four or five nights a week, now I only let people take advantage of me once every four months or so. And I quite enjoy the fact that I know what's going on."
The hangers-on, the "advisers" and the unofficial entourage that seems to develop in sports such as snooker and boxing, all recognised that in O'Sullivan there was a kid who would, undoubtedly, win the world snooker championships. "Yeah, and if life had been normal, I would have done by now," O'Sullivan reckons. The problem however, is that life has been far from normal.
At 16, O'Sullivan turned professional and, within weeks, had everyone in the game talking about a world champion in the making. At 17 his father, Ronnie Snr, was convicted of murder - a charge the family continually refutes - and is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence. A few months' later his mother, Maria, was also imprisoned for a short spell.
"It was bad enough when my Dad was sent down, but to lose my mother as well, just as I was trying to come to terms with what happened to my father, was very difficult to handle," O'Sullivan says. "I had a 12-year-old sister, which was a difficult age, and I tried to be a big brother for her, but it was just too much for me. That's when I went off the rails."
It is, of course, understandable, that a kid, with the money, attention, lifestyle and pitfalls snooker can offer, coupled with the misery of his home life, should lurch into bad ways, and this is precisely what O'Sullivan did.
The list of offences is numerous, but his two most famous incidents were when he played against Alain Robidoux using his wrong hand - explaining later that he showed no respect because his opponent did not deserve any - and, at the 1995 World Championships, when he assaulted a press officer and was subsequently handed a record pounds 20,000 fine and a two-year ban, suspended for two years.
"I had most of that summer to think about where I was going, and to look hard at myself," he explains."But what really made me change my ways was when my mother threw me out of the house."
Really? "Yeah, well she'd just had enough of me. She's always backed me to the hilt, even when I've been in the wrong, but she wasn't going to let me throw everything away. It wasn't really about snooker, but more about my attitude."
In what way? "She wasn't happy about the way I spoke to her, nor to my sister. I just let things go, I became lazy, fat and just wasn't bothered about anything. So she slung me out for two weeks. It was a form of shock treatment, but it worked.
"I came back and apologised, but I also knew that just saying sorry wasn't enough. I has to follow it up with my actions. I realised that it was no good to me, to my mother or to my father, stuck there in prison and discovering that I'd disappeared for a fortnight. So that's when I decided to knuckle down. I don't want people saying, in 10 years' time, that I should have won a world championship. I want them to be talking about the number of world titles I've already won."
O'Sullivan's assessment of his talent and the extent to which it has been fulfilled is nothing if not honest. "At 16 you should have put a bet on me winning the world title by the time I was 19. The reasons why I didn't were all self-inflicted. I've been a professional for five years now, but a real pro for just two. OK, so my father went away, but it shouldn't have stopped me doing the business." He looks down to the table, and adds: "But it did."
There is an evident, if understandable, bitterness about O'Sullivan. For a start, he is fairly bitter about his sport. "I honestly think that snooker, in one way, doesn't want me," he admits. "I certainly went through a stage when I realised that the sport needed me in one sense, but really didn't want all the hassle. You can sense, sometimes, when somebody's about to lose it. People were placing obstacles in my way and testing my patience. When I reacted, which I know I shouldn't have done, I gave them what I wanted."
He takes a long, thoughtful drag from his cigarette, and looks out of the window towards the sea. "It's been an education for me," he adds. "A crash- course in life."
O'Sullivan is also cut up about the enforced break-up of his family. "My dad's been bearing up unbelievably well, whilst my mother's revealed herself to be the true guvnor of the house. She's even stronger than my dad, although it took me 21 years to recognise this.
"The only person who seems to be bitter about it all is me. The first time I saw my dad in prison I broke down in tears, but he told me that what was done was done, and that I should get on with life and fulfil my talent. He was right, although it took some time for me to realise this.
"When I'm 35 I want pounds 3m in the bank, my house paid off, my mum's house paid off, and for my parents to be able to go anywhere they like in the world, do anything and be happy. My dad will be 55 when he's released, and I want him to enjoy the rest of his life. Sometimes I wonder whether I should be playing snooker for those reasons, but it just makes me more determined. That's what I'm striving for."
The immediate results of the new O'Sullivan were evident last season. Despite only playing at what he describes as 60 per cent of his best, O'Sullivan took three titles, made two further finals, and recorded a televised 147 break at the Crucible during this year's World Championships. He was also involved in what many observers believe to be the greatest game ever when, in the final of the Liverpool Victoria Charity Challenge, he fought back from 8-2 down to draw level against Stephen Hendry, before falling to a maximum break from the Scot to lose 9-8. "It just shows that if I can do all that with my troubles, and maintain a high ranking, then what can I achieve from now on?"
He has certainly done enough to convince the astute Ian Doyle, the head of the expanding Stirling-based sports stable that includes Hendry, to take O'Sullivan on over last summer. A couple of years ago Doyle, who always recognised O'Sullivan's talent, would not have gone near him. "And he was right not to," O'Sullivan accepts. "He's not prepared to put up with any crap from me, and I'm not prepared to give him any, either. I fully expect us to be good for each other."
Next week's Liverpool Victoria UK Championship in Preston will be an interesting test of the new O'Sullivan, a previous winner of the prestigious tournament. Second only to the world championships in prize money and prestige, it also features on O'Sullivan's list of goals for this season.
"It's down on my notepad as one to win," he says, producing a rare, self- conscious smile. "And you want to know something? If I do, I'll probably be hated more than I am even now. I'm going to start winning so many tournaments that it's really going to hurt people."
And what about the world championships? "Oh, I've always known that I will become world champion, even during all the bad times. It's always been just a matter of time, but now that I've pulled myself together, it's going to be sooner rather than later."Reuse content