O'Sullivan's cue for black magic

WORLD SNOOKER CHAMPIONSHIP: Teenager stays relaxed about making history. Guy Hodgson reports
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Ask Ronnie O'Sullivan who are his heroes and he says he has moved on from snooker to other sports. Michael Schumacher and Ernie Els are the men he admires now, just as he once watched and dreamed as Steve Davis acquired his six World Championships.

"They are winners," he says with the wonder a teenager has for role models. "They're young but they've achieved so much. Their commitment is fantastic, the way they prepare for their events..." He tailed off to contemplate his respect.

Elsewhere awed youngsters were saying much the same about O'Sullivan. At 19 he is a winner, a prodigy who has already achieved so much that the 1985 world champion, Dennis Taylor, estimates he could become the greatest snooker player who has ever lived. But there are concerns about his commitment, and worries over whether he might become the green baize equivalent of tennis's burnt-out wreck, Jennifer Capriati.

At the turn of the year a stress fracture appeared in O'Sullivan's previously unblemished career. Beaten in a tournament he was defending, the United Kingdom Championship, he suddenly questioned the worth of long nights and longer days bent over a snooker table. "I've lost my enthusiasm," he said while pondering whether he would retire. Later he would add: "I know I'm capable of winning the World Championship but I'm not going to put myself through the pain barrier."

Five months on, his attitude has not turned 180 degrees but it has softened. "It was a rush of blood," he said with a smile of regret. "Sometimes it's a little bit too much for me. I can't do it every tournament and perhaps I had to learn that. Now I step back, take a few days off and get refreshed within myself. We all know how to play snooker. We all know how to hold the cue and hit the balls but it's important to feel good as well."

It was all a mood swing then, and which teenager does not have them? And to be fair to O'Sullivan, if any young man is entitled to lurches in temperament it is him. His father, Ronnie Snr, is serving a life sentence in prison while his mother, Maria, also had a highly publicised appearance in court. All this conducted during an adolesence that was already strained by the close scrutiny fame made inevitable. It is a wonder the blow-out was not more destructive.

"It used to worry me," O'Sullivan says of the dark days when his father's case was filling the front pages while he was decorating the back, "but I've got used to it now. It's three years ago and I've got to the stage where I don't care what people say. Whatever happens you adapt. At first I thought `Oh no, this is a nightmare' but you adapt.

"What you haven't got you don't miss and after the first 18 months it was embedded in me that I had to get on with things myself without my dad. I still speak to my dad, we're still really close together, but I've learnt to do things on my own now, to have my own responsibilities. Whatever happens you adapt."

Nevertheless people within snooker watch and worry ever so slightly. They speak of touching scenes when the 15-year-old O'Sullivan used to kiss his dad goodnight at tournaments before going to bed and wonder if one day a larger sign of strain might show.

The consensus is that his manager, Barry Hearn, has become virtually a surrogate parent and it is something O'Sullivan does not play down, saying Hearn is the only person he will listen to other than his father. "Barry's never let the family down," he says. "The fact that he's a brilliant manager, too, means that I've the best of all worlds."

Warming to the subject of maturity in adversity, he added: "You can't have your mum and dad with you all the time. What's happened helped me to grow up a bit. I've always been level-headed. I'm 19, but I feel I'm older than most 19-year-olds."

Age envelops snooker. Once the game was dominated by grey-haired men who lingered for decades but now the trend is towards the disposable winner, players who are overtaken by their mid-20s. O'Sullivan looms over the previous generation more than most and is considered a strong candidate to win Embassy World Championship, which begins today, becoming the youngest winner of the sport's most treasured prize.

This year he has added the Benson and Hedges Masters to the British and UK titles he acquired last season and his appearance in the final of the British Open last weekend (when he was defeated by another prodigy, John Higgins) augurs well for The Crucible.

"As long as I'm cueing all right I feel I can beat anybody," he said. "It's a question of how you feel at the time. If you're relaxed, fine. You see some players some weeks and they look as if they've got loads of time to do everything. They feel good, they're in control and they usually win the tournament.

"If I can get like that, I know I can dominate at the table. There's bundles of adrenalin flowing, you can feel the audience right on top of you, but the fact remains you only need five victories to become world champion. My view is if I don't win this time I'll have another 15 years to do it. I refuse to put myself under pressure."

In more ways than one. When he was being followed by "investigative" reporters in Thailand recently he told them he was going to get married. "It's a load of rubbish," he said, laughing that anyone could have taken him seriously. "They were going to print what they wanted anyway so I told them that as a joke."

It was duly printed, much to O'Sullivan's amusement. "Who'd want to marry me anyway? With my lifestyle I'd never be at home."

A year ago, you suspect his response would have been less relaxed. Maybe his time has come.