O'Sullivan back on his best behaviour

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The Independent Online
Snooker

You would think that being branded "the bad boy of snooker" was bad enough, but Barry Hearn was inflicting more damage to Ronnie O'Sullivan. "He's a bit like Alex Higgins," he said, which would probably be actionable if he was not the manager of the sport's new enfant terrible and paid for the solicitors.

It was the morning after O'Sullivan, 20, had been handed a record fine of pounds 20,000 and given a two-year suspension, suspended for two years, for assaulting a press officer at The Crucible, and Hearn was determined to herald the turning of a new leaf. Work was being done on the world No 3's image.

"I told him," Hearn said, "this is a problem, let's get rid of it. You have a two-year sentence over your head. Try to keep your nose clean.

"He's a fiery lad at times, but that is one of the reasons he plays the way he does. Alex Higgins would not have been world champion if he had conformed. But I hope Ronnie tempers his temper; he is the most exciting player for several years."

O'Sullivan, meanwhile, was preparing for one of the most difficult appearances of his career. Just 10 hours after he had publicly apologised at midnight for his "out-of-character behaviour", he was due to face the second favourite, John Higgins. This would be a difficult enough proposition at the best of times, but after fearing he might be thrown out of the tournament it was a huge task.

"What a day this is for him," the master of ceremonies, Alan Hughes, said introducing O'Sullivan, who, given the 24 hours he had just experienced, would probably have preferred a quiet spell in front of the television. Out he came, his head slightly bowed, to a reception that hit the right note. Not the misguided "rebel" roar that used to greet "the Hurricane" after his latest spat with the authorities, but muted, if warm, applause.

With that an eerie normality descended on the table. Both players had been mulling over whether they would have to play a match, but neither seemed affected. Indeed the quality of the snooker in the first two sessions was exemplary; barely an error, just a cold, clinical despatch of the balls.

Higgins, pale as Steve Davis and likely to pick up the mantle passed on by the great man once Stephen Hendry is finished with it, was predominant though. If O'Sullivan made a mistake he pounced it, turning a 3-1 deficit into a 5-3 lead in the morning and then pushing his advantage to 10-6 in the evening.

In the evening he was particularly deadly as frame after frame seemed to follow the same pattern. O'Sullivan would grab the early advantage only for a slip to end one of his breaks and Higgins would pounce. Give him the opportunity and a Rolls Royce had more chance of breaking down.

Which is not what you could say about Hendry, who was 3-1 down at the interval of his session with Darren Morgan and playing like he had feared he would be ejected from the tournament. Eight frames without any spark from the world champion has the rarity of cue-ball sized diamonds, however, and at the end he was 5-3 ahead. Breaks of 55, 82, 92 and 63 were included in the fusillade.

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