Snooker: O'Sullivan needs to master mindgames

Clive Everton examines the torment behind an enormous talent
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RONNIE O'SULLIVAN was in such a state in November that he could not face defending his UK title. Today, he is relishing the challenge of the Benson & Hedges Masters, "the big daddy after the World Championship" as its triple winner, Cliff Thorburn described it.

O'Sullivan won it four years ago and has been in two other finals. Win or lose, he will be the people's hero, guaranteed a rock star reception when the spotlight picks out his entrance to Wembley Conference Centre's cavernous arena.

It is against his nature to grind out wins in second gear although this is how he won, to his own surprise, the Regal Scottish Masters last October. But it was obvious, particularly to those who have been through it themselves, how deeply depressed he was, bereft of any sense of enjoyment or ambition, emotions cut off, every day a struggle.

The root cause of his malaise, the enforced separation caused by his father's life sentence for murder, has been with him since he was 16. Highs, whether from winning a title or easier pleasures, did not last very long.

His guide, philosopher and friend, Del Hill, by whose lake in Lincolnshire he spends many tranquil hours with rod and line, was worried about him, as was his manager, Ian Doyle. Professional help - counselling - was arranged. He left the circuit for almost two months and came back for the Irish Open, losing 5-4 in the first round to Jimmy Michie, the world No 81.

"That was the first time for ages Ronnie seemed sorry to leave a tournament," Hill said. The week before last on an outside table at the Welsh Open, O'Sullivan was trailing Alain Robidoux 2-1 when he threw his cue casually at a long red: 3-1 at the mid-session interval. Hill observed that, with Robidoux not missing a ball, they were within two more mistakes of going home. Some coaches are paid fortunes to reiterate such self-evident truths.

O'Sullivan made 92 and 143 to level, committed a mistake in the seventh which cost 63 but won 5-4 through runs of 76 and 78.

Next evening, he started his quarter-final against James Wattana with a total clearance of 144 and in the third frame provided Sky with its first live 147. Within 24 hours he had made the three highest breaks in the history of the tournament. "I thought it was on after two blacks," he said matter-of-factly of his maximum.

On the 15th red, he felt "the adrenalin pumping" and warned himself not to translate this into hitting too hard. After 15 red-blacks, plumb on the yellow and all colours on or near their spots, he realised that "only a bad shot or my bottle going can stop me doing it". He won 5-2 and in the semi-final against Mark Williams next afternoon fizzed away with a 71 break. Williams eventually won that opening frame on the black with a 43 clearance and the volatile O'Sullivan went in record time from invincibility to collapse.

Williams defeated him 6-1 and beat Stephen Hendry 9-8 on the final black in the final, a virtual carbon copy of last year's epic Masters final. This cheerful, uncomplicated Welsh left-hander, an authentic world title contender, has been playing superbly, his Irish and Welsh Open first prizes separated only by helping Wales win the Nations Cup. If he, O'Sullivan and a couple more strike it hot this week, the 25th Masters should be one to remember.