The sureness of shot, the fluency of cue action were missing. In short, he was out of form and up against it against Darren Morgan's solid potting in the second round. He put up a good front with the odd burst of points but behind it there was no confidence that he would make a decisive break when given the chance.
"It would have been an injustice if I'd won," he said after his 13-12 defeat. "Darren was playing 10 times better than me. I know how good a player he is and that he would punish my mistakes."
O'Sullivan will, barring another maximum this week, take home pounds 165,000 for his 147 and a major feeling of dissatisfaction. This is the man, after all, who was being talked of as the youngest world champion when he won his first 38 professional matches. At 21 that has eluded him, and another has passed without him getting close to the world title.
The world No 8 has been to the Crucible four times now, and the graph of his performances implied he would reach the final. Since 1993 he has gone one round better on each visit until this year when the line has gone downwards.
"Ronnie's talent is one of the greatest I have ever come across," Stephen Hendry said of the tiro after he had beaten him in the quarter-finals two years ago. "I don't think he'll waste it." Now the future does not seem so sure. O'Sullivan aspires to be the next Hendry; the fear that he might become the next Jimmy White is beginning to be voiced.
White, the waif that strayed, has been to six world finals and not won once and while O'Sullivan does not have the appetite for life's vices that the Whirlwind has, he has shown a worrying tendency to find snooker a chore. More than once he has announced his intention to retire only to draw back from the edge.
"All I can do now is go home, have a rest, take a holiday and hope that I can sort it all out," O'Sullivan said. "I'm really struggling to find some consistency."
A crash course of Hendry's obsessive capacity to practise would help, of course, which is precisely what John Higgins has been trying to find in the build-up to Sheffield. He acknowledges he will not be able to match the six-times world champion unless he works as hard and since January he has tried to curtail his natural wish to socialise.
The result was a win in the European Open last month but since he has suffered three successive first-round defeats. Even in his opening match in Sheffield he was 3-1 down to Graham Horne until he had an inch chopped off his cue and accelerated away to a 10-6 win.
Yesterday there was no need for the hacksaw. Against Dominic Dale, the world No 2's recuperation appeared to be coming along very well as he took a 6-2 lead into this afternoon's resumption. Dale, who defeated the 15th seed, Tony Drago, 10-9 in the previous round, could not score heavily enough and Higgins, with breaks of 40, 85, 91, 77, 78 and 46, cleared up.
Higgins now needs seven frames for a place in the quarter-finals but if his afternoon was relatively comfortable, James Wattana's was hard labour against Stephen Lee.
The 12th seed, finished the day 4-4 but it was desperately close, typified by the seventh frame that Wattana only took after trailing 64-33 and needing two snookers.
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