A few moments was all it took for arguably one of the greatest cueists to rally his sportsman spirit and give an effusive speech about the new world champion.
“In the end I was numb as he [Mark Selby] was too strong and tough. Maybe I would have thrown in the towel a few years ago but I tried my hardest. He was too good. I can’t have it all my own way all the time.”
Self-criticism is not something new for Ronnie O’Sullivan. However, one would hardly expect the five-time world champion to recognise a younger and relatively lesser-known opponent in such glowing terms.
Blatant acknowledgement of his shortcomings is just one of the many facets of the prolific cueist, who started playing snooker at an early age and achieved a century break (117) at the age of 10, thereafter going on to become the British U16 champion when he was 13. As a 15-year-old, he sealed his amateur career by taking the IBSF World U21 Championship title.
O’Sullivan turned pro in 1992 at 16, and began the season by winning 74 of his first 76 professional matches, including a winning streak of 38, a record that still stands.
At the qualifying stage of the 1992 Grand Prix, the Briton defeated Jason Curtis 5-0 in 43 minutes 36 seconds, setting the current record for the fastest best-of-nine frame match. The astonishing speed prompted master of ceremonies Alan Hughes to dub O’Sullivan ‘The Rocket’, a nickname that would stick.
That year, O’Sullivan made another record as he became the youngest player to qualify for the world championship at 16.
The following season then saw him beating another budding great, Stephen Hendry, at the UK Championship to win his first ranking title, becoming the youngest winner of a professional ranking tournament at 17 years and 358 days. He closed the season by climbing the world rankings from 57 to nine.
From 1994 onwards, the Essex-based cueist has won a plethora of major, minor, ranking and invitational tournaments, demolishing his opponents to earn the world number-one ranking five times (2002, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009). During the process, his titles collection boasted 26 ranking tournaments, five world championships, a record 12 maximums and overall second-best competitive century breaks (747) in the history of snooker.
One of the unique capabilities of O’Sullivan is his ambidexterity. While his right hand is more powerful than his left one, the cueist routinely alternates between the two when needed, giving him a psychological advantage over his opponents.
When he first displayed this left-handed ability in the 1996 World Championship against Alain Robidoux, the Canadian accused him of disrespect. O’Sullivan responded that he played better with his left hand than Robidoux could with his right. He was summoned to a disciplinary hearing in response to Robidoux’s formal complaint, where he had to prove that he could play to a high level with his left hand.
He played three frames against former world championship runner-up Rex Williams, winning all three. The charge of bringing the game into disrepute was subsequently dropped.
Revered as the most naturally-talented and one of the greatest players in the history of snooker, ‘The Rocket’ has been plagued with several bouts of inconsistency, resulting in an uneven graph of performances that brought out the infamous ‘two Ronnies’ aspect of his character.
His moodiness manifested in him in different ways. Once, O’Sullivan was seen sitting in his chair with a wet cloth over his head because he couldn’t bear to watch his opponent playing. Another time, he conceded an entire match half-way through, claiming that he wanted to go home.
However, a more serious and career-threatening facet of his life was clinical depression — the worst of which seized him in 2012 when he put down his cue and swore he would never play again. The Briton had been experiencing symptoms but attempted to counter them by consuming drugs and alcohol. Eventually, he ran out of alternatives and went to live on a farm.
Nonetheless, O’Sullivan was unable to repress what he was always destined to do, and returned to the snooker circuit in 2013, just two days before the deadline for entry into that year’s world championship.
With the help of sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters and support from some close friends such as Damien Hirst and Ronnie Wood, O’Sullivan made a demoralising dent in the spirits of his opponents as he sailed effortlessly through the 17-day event to once again lift snooker’s most prestigious trophy.
Mercurial, temperamental, genius — ‘The Rocket’ has lived up to all sorts of terminologies. In the end, it’s the cue that decides the greatness of any player, and O’Sullivan has always been on competitive terms with the instrument of his incomparable success.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2014.
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