I heard a question asked backstage today as Ronnie O’Sullivan powered into a 10-2 lead over Barry Hawkins at the Crucible: who’s doing the exhibition? It referred to what would happen if the semi-final finished with a session to spare, leaving Saturday afternoon snooker-free but the real answer to the question is simple: Ronnie O’Sullivan is doing the exhibition.
Because that’s what it has been at times in Sheffield this year. Sport can be great theatre and snooker, especially over the long format under which the World Championship is played, has historically provided great, edge of the seat drama, keeping the watching millions fascinated.
But top level sport can also be a demonstration of sheer talent and sometimes you just have to admire the greats.
The O’Sullivan- Hawkins semi-final may still end tonight with a session to spare. Few are predicting a comeback as Hawkins struggles to cope with the man, the player, the force of nature he is facing.
However, like the greats of the game before him, O’Sullivan does not have to apologise for his excellence.
He has set the benchmark for the rest to aim at and, so far at this World Championship, few have got close. Joe Perry did have the champion on the ropes in the second round but failed to knock him down. Shaun Murphy was blown away. Hawkins is merely hanging on.
The last line of defence will be Mark Selby or Neil Robertson, two players who have beaten O’Sullivan in finals. It won’t be a formality against either but the five times world champion will start favourite.
He has that aura that Steve Davis had, that Stephen Hendry had, the same one other great sportsmen like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer possessed: they could intimidate opponents without having to do anything. Conversely, though, it is everything they have achieved which causes the intimidation in the first place.
O’Sullivan has not been flawless in this event. Early on against Murphy he was patchy but over so many frames of snooker you can’t expect to go without slumps. Overall, he has played to a consistently high standard, one with which the rest of the field has failed to cope. Again, this is their fault, not his.
If anything, O’Sullivan’s pick and choose approach to the circuit has made him more dangerous. When he turns up now it is usually because he wants to be there, rather than going through the motions. He is focused for tournaments and mentally prepared. I think as well that his long stated indifference to records has waned the closer he has got to breaking them.
The bottom line is that O’Sullivan is the best player in the game at his best. Even not at his best he remains very difficult to beat, particularly on the Crucible stage.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.