Snooker: O'Sullivan's world of desire

Clive Everton looks at a troubled genius with a dream to realise at the Crucible
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The Independent Online
ALL snooker tournaments pale in comparison with the Embassy World Championship, the 17-day marathon of the mind which begins at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, next Saturday.

Ronnie O'Sullivan could say last week in all honesty: "This is the tournament I want to win at the moment," but his subsequent 5-4 British Open quarter- final defeat by Mark Williams at Plymouth on Friday could be shrugged off in a way that disappointments at the Crucible can not.

Simply, there is only one World Championship. No WBA, WBC, WBO or NBG: just one, once a year. And not so very many in a player's entire career.

O'Sullivan, who has won four titles this season, has always had the talent to win it. A century break at the age of 10, a 147 maximum in competition at 15 is genius on the scale of any childhood prodigy of the board such as Bobby Fischer or Nigel Short.

For prodigies, the problems often start when real life starts getting in the way. O'Sullivan's father is six years into a life sentence for murder. During the Old Bailey trial, his 16-year-old son was winning 72 of his first 74 professional matches on the summer qualifying treadmill at Blackpool.

"I've been unhappy for a long time over the six years. I've had brief periods when I've been happy," said O'Sullivan this week. He won the UK Championship, which carries a ranking points tariff second only to the World Championship, a week before his 18th birthday; he won it again last November, beating Stephen Hendry in the final, one of four consecutive defeats he has now inflicted on the world No 1.

They are seeded to meet in the quarter-finals at Sheffield in what could be the match of the championship. Why so early? Because O'Sullivan's start- of-season ranking, on which seedings for the whole campaign are based, was only seven, a reflection of some bleak moments and poor performances during the two years on which the list is based.

Nothing upset him so much as his mother's brief imprisonment in 1995 for VAT offences as a sleeping director of her husband's business, but he was seldom able to settle for long and often had no heart for snooker.

Sleek and fit now from running and training, he allowed himself to balloon up for a while. He was disqualified from driving for grossly exceeding the speed limit; one of his relationships produced a daughter which brought the Child Support Agency and direct debit payments into play.

His frustrations - not least his inability to produce his best form more often - exploded at the Crucible two years ago when he punched and bit a press officer who was implementing an absurd official dress code for visitors to the press room.

The visitor was his guide, philosopher and best mate, Del Hill, a 6ft 10in Londoner who used a JCB digger to construct a lake at the back of his home in rural Lincolnshire. O'Sullivan fishes there for hours when his volatile nature needs repose. Hill usually travels with him, keeping him focused, reviving his spirit when it flags. For O'Sullivan's realistic awareness of how good he is, is sometimes at odds with a much more fragile sense of inner self-worth.

O'Sullivan won the Irish Masters two weeks ago and regardless of his Plymouth setback knows that he is in fair fettle for Sheffield. So too, however, are the four other most obvious title contenders, all of whom were still engaged on the Devon coast yesterday.

Hendry's attempt to win his seventh world title was foiled by Ken Doherty in last spring's final, the mid-point of a sequence of five falls at the last fence before he last month won his first title for almost a year, the Thailand Masters.

The second half of Doherty's season has been much better than his first but he was trailing Hendry 5-1 and 48-1 in last night's semi-final before suddenly coming to life with breaks of 53, 74 and 81 to narrow the gap to 5-4. Hendry's nerve held firm, though, as a break of 81 secured his 6-4 victory.

Higgins reached his seventh final in 12 attempts this season with a 6- 4 win over Williams, who beat Hendry in the Benson & Hedges Masters final in February. A third title for Higginswould strengthen his confidence for the Crucible where he is seeded to meet either Hendry or O'Sullivan in the semis. Doherty v Williams is the prospective semi in the other half.

Steeled for Sheffield: The eight new boys at the world championship

Simon Bedford

Nationality English. Age 22

Ranking (start of season) 215. Updated 203

Practises with James Wattana at Bradford and won nine matches to qualify for the World Championship, during which he beat the world No 17 player, Gary Wilkinson, 10-9 on the last pink in the final qualifying round. Bedford also won the third of the five United Kingdom secondary-tour events to assure himself of a place on 192-man world-ranking circuit next season.

Alfie Burden

Nationality English. Age 21

Ranking 122 (86)

ON the books of Arsenal and Swindon Town before a broken leg ended his football career at 15. Took up snooker as rehabilitation and within 18 months won English Under-17 championship. Signed to the Ian Doyle stable, with Stephen Hendry rating him highly, but did not make significant progress until he went on his own near the end of last season.

David Gray

Nationality English. Age 19

Ranking 152 (73)

A FINE prospect and the circuit's fastest climber. Several good wins in isolation, including one over John Parrott, but not quite ready for big breakthrough. At 16 years and two months superseded Jimmy White as youngest ever English amateur champion. Managed by Doyle.

Quinten Hann

Nationality Australian. Age 20

Ranking 104 (57)

PEROXIDE blond from Wagga Wagga and the first Australian to play at the Crucible since Eddie Charlton six years ago. Highly gifted junior who made century break on television when 13. Banned for two years by Australian Association for persistent misbehaviour at 15 and at present serving 30-month disqualification for drink-driving twice in the same day, but signs of greater maturity this season and can threaten the best. Has victories over John Higgins and, twice, Mark Williams, whom he plays at the Crucible.

Peter Lines

Nationality English. Age 28

Ranking 90 (65)

HAVING his best season this year, and beat Mark Williams in Scottish Open. Had to fight hard to reach the Crucible, playing his final match only two days after getting back on his feet following 10 days in bed with pneumonia and beating former world semi-finalist Steve James in final qualifying round last month. "If it hadn't been the big one, I would probably have withdrawn."

Terry Murphy

Nationality Northern Irish. Age 26

Ranking 29 (30)

MURPHY started playing the game on a reduced-scale table his parents had bought him to keep him off the streets of his native Londonderry. The family moved to the Midlands in his teens. Murphy played for Northern Ireland in the World Cup and beat Ronnie O'Sullivan in the 1996 UK championship - and not many players have managed to do that over two sessions.

Jason Prince

Nationality Northern Irish. Age 27

Ranking 42 (40)

LEFT Londonderry at 16 to live in Yorkshire. Has never really looked like breaking into the top 32 or dropping out of the top 64. Has wins over Steve Davis and Peter Ebdon and is playing more freely and positively this season - as advised by practice opponent James Wattana.

Matthew Stevens

Nationality Welsh. Age 20

Ranking 53 (31)

OUTSTANDING potter and break builder who has reached two world- ranking semi-finals this season and has a promising draw against Alain Robidoux, who has not won a match since his cue was broken shortly after he reached last year's world semi-finals. Said that he would never visit Crucible until he had qualified to play there. Practises at the Terry Griffiths club. "We chat about things but I've never coached him," Griffiths said, "because his cue action has always been sound, even when he was nine."

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