He’s a Rocket Man

Every now and then, there are suggestions a particular player is greater than his or her sport.

This is not a concept that I subscribe to. But even I have to admit that no-one comes closer to doing so than the snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan.

“I was struggling. At the moment, I’m having to fight it out there. I have to try to forget about all that stuff and go with what I’ve got and try to produce some decent snooker.”

This was Ronnie O’Sullivan’s candid – albeit misplaced – prognosis before his sparkling 6-3 victory over current World Champion Stuart Bingham in the semi-final of the recent Masters tournament.

If that performance was evidence of O’Sullivan struggling, I’d hate to imagine what he can deliver when he feels he is playing well!!

Of course we don’t need to imagine ‘the rocket’ burning through our stratospheres – his best performances in winning 5 world Championships and 5 Masters were of a quality that leave even the commentators gasping.

O’Sullivan himself though insists that his greatest match was not at the home of these tournaments – the Crucible Theatre and Wembley – but in pop star Keith Richard’s snooker room against the snooker rogues’ snooker rogue Jimmy White. The leviathans of the baize played intently as the sun rose to audience of the wired host and an equally twitchy Ronnie Wood. 

Sadly not one of the quartet remembers the outcome, yet all present remember a multitude of 147s.

That was more than a decade ago. O’Sullivan is now clean and sober. His only addiction is to running, though he did admit to returning to smoking during The Masters, to combat the stress. He is touted by all three great cue men of the past as ‘the greatest’ and often described as a ‘snooker genius’.

When he is on song the balls chime and clink into the pocket with the regularity and efficiency of a laconic Swiss watch. The ease at which he glides around the angular table reminds one of the most elegant Swiss export since Rolex – Roger Federer. 

Ronnie The Rocket’ – his sobriquet – was third in line of the fast and feckless players of the modern era; first there was Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, then Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White, and finally by O’Sullivan. What sets O’Sullivan apart from the other two fabulously sozzled entertainers is his ability to win tournaments regularly when at his most disfunctional. 

Any flawed sporting genius (a word banded around far too much in sport) carries a terrible curse. They remember their game at its most gilded and when they cannot reach those heights they appear close to combustion.
Ronnie, for example, said, after his match with Bingham, that he felt “embarrassed” and “had no touch or feel”. This mood might have cost Higgins or White the match. But not O’Sullivan who won the match and 24 hours later destroyed Barry Hawkins 10-1 in the Masters final.

During his trademark twitchy interview, which includes a ruffle of the hair and a look to the ceiling with every answer, he said “I’m never surprised to win a tournament”. It was rather like Oscar Wilde declaring his genius – though with a touch more humility.

O’Sullivan often contradicts himself in interviews. He loves Barry Hearn but hates snooker’s governing body, which is run by Barry Hearn. Each time he gabbles about finding snooker boring he begins talking about the near orgasmic joys of a decent safety shot. And when O’Sulivan, in a dark mood, claims to have had enough of the game and wants to go running a la Forest Gump, the great man trails off into a reverie of winning another World Championship.  

Snooker is a sport of characters and dullards – players who take risks or grind out victories. O’Sullivan is unique in that he can play any which way he likes, leaving both experts and fans dumbfounded. The current snooker landscape is pretty empty at the moment without ‘The Rocket’; a man who only rolls up for the big tournaments and destroys all comers. He adds drama to any tournament and is the only player a non fan of potters will recognise and watch.

Even at 40 and with greying temples, he is snooker for me…will the game be forced to adapt around his career Autumn, rather like a theatre company changing its programme from Hamlet to Lear because it star is too old to play the Dane! 

Ultimately I hope O’Sullivan plays for a long time because sadly without him sports fans – as opposed to snooker fans – will drift away from the sport.

I hope he continues wow us for as long as his body and mind will allow him – I salute the master! 

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