RONNIE O’SULLIVAN goes into this year’s Betfred World Championship the same as he has every other – in the spotlight with everyone wondering how far he can go.
He isn’t the defending champion but is still the star of the show, snooker’s leading box office attraction and the only player who cuts through to the wider sporting public who don’t follow snooker closely.
His season has been mixed. Things were going well pre-Christmas. He won the Champion of Champions and UK Championship but was then well beaten by Neil Robertson in the Masters semi-finals and in a fractious mood at the Welsh Open and World Grand Prix. He didn’t go to Beijing for the China Open.
But he’ll be in Sheffield today to start out against Craig Steadman and is still the favourite for the title regardless of the vagaries of form or his own personal equilibrium.
This is O’Sullivan’s 23rd successive Crucible appearance. He is fourth on the list of all time match winners, top of the list of century makers and will have won more prize money in Sheffield than any other player if he reaches the second round this year.
Five world titles from six finals, three 147s and some dazzling displays of snooker have confirmed his legendary status. He has only lost in the first round at the Crucible three times and not since 2003.
Worryingly for the rest, he has also won a number of matches in Sheffield when not at his best. Ronnie may even argue he has won the title when not at his best.
His first title came in 2001 at the age of 25. He won again in 2004 and 2008 and then clinched back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013, the latter having played only one competitive match in a year.
Last season, he led Mark Selby 10-5 in the final but was beaten 18-14, the key session being the highly tactical third, in which he won just one frame. As Crucible records go, though, this is one of the very best.
O’Sullivan, perhaps uniquely in this tournament, carries with him an aura of intimidation. Play the balls not the man is the key to success in snooker but it must be nigh on impossible to discard O’Sullivan’s huge presence when at the table. When he plays, there is a particular atmosphere, more vociferous, more electric, than with other players. Shaun Murphy fell apart badly against him in the quarter-finals last year but he is by no means alone. O’Sullivan, like the greats who preceded him, can have that effect on even top players.
And with the longer matches allowing more time to settle, when he hits his stride he can reel off frames in no time, suddenly turning a close contest into a procession and leaving his opponents demoralised.
Form and mood has fluctuated throughout the season but O’Sullivan’s record in the very top events remains stellar. If he is going to come good anywhere then it will be in a tournament which really matters, which defines a player’s career.
At his best, he is the best. If he can produce this level of snooker consistently throughout the fortnight then title no.6 beckons.
But plenty can also go wrong. There have been times in years past where O’Sullivan has felt the unique Crucible pressure as deeply as anyone. However, he has been consulting with Dr Steve Peters again, which bodes well for the tournament where the intense focus is harsher than at any point in the season.
His quarter includes Mark Williams, Graeme Dott and Stuart Bingham. His half includes Ding Junhui, John Higgins, Marco Fu and Judd Trump – all players he has beaten and all players who have beaten him on high profile occasions.
O’Sullivan’s age must also be becoming a factor in terms of world title attempts. He is 39, albeit a very fit 39. He’s still running and has also been boxing of late. But this is a very long event and favours younger men. If O’Sullivan is to get to the final he will have to play on ten successive days from the second Saturday to the end.
You can make an eloquent case for or against an O’Sullivan victory this year – just like every other year. He has won the title before despite not being in the best spirits. His comments pre-tournament have been contradictory but great champions come alive in the heat of competition and O’Sullivan is not immune to the lure of the Crucible.
He knows time is running out for him to win many more world titles. Whether he wins another this year may depend on how much, deep down, he truly wants it.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.