Craig Salmon talks to snooker legend Ronnie O’Sullivan
Mercurial...gifted...genius...showman...the Mozart of snooker...the greatest player the game has ever seen...
There have been many superlatives used to describe the talents of snooker star Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Over his 23-year career, the popular Londoner has wowed audiences across the world with his unique skills on the green baize.
Nicknamed the ‘Rocket’ because of his rapid playing style around the table, right-handed O’Sullivan is just as recognised for his ability to score a century break using his left hand as he is for the five World Championship crowns he has won.
With more competition century breaks to his name than anybody else in the history of the game, not forgetting the fastest ever 147 which he recorded at the 1997 World Championships – a mesmerising five minutes and 20 seconds – it is easy to see why O’Sullivan is widely regarded as snooker’s greatest exponent.
With the sound of balls clinking and then disappearing down the pockets in a snooker hall as the background noise to my telephone interview with O’Sullivan earlier this week, I asked him for his thoughts on the many compliments which have been paid about his game over the years.
While extremely honoured that many fans, players – even snooker legends such as Dennis Taylor, Steve Davis and Jimmy White – place him on a pedestal all on his own, surprisingly O’Sullivan would prefer to be remembered as a hard worker rather than for any natural gifts he may have been blessed with.
“It’s nice when you hear people say nice things, but there’s a lot of hard work which goes into that,” O’Sullivan said.
“People think I just wake up in a morning, roll out of bed and go and knock a 147 in.
“They think it just happens for me.
“I think sometimes I don’t get enough credit for how hard I work at my game.
“I work so, so hard. I would rather be remembered as somebody who works hard at their game than anything else.
“It doesn’t just happen for me – I am practising four or five hours every day and that’s what it takes to kind of get to the peak performance that you need to reach. There are probably other players out there who are more talented than me, but they don’t work as hard at their game as what I do.”
It is an illustration of just how good O’Sullivan is rated with a cue in his hand that some people still feel he has slightly underachieved during his career.
Despite the fact he has accomplished the triple crown – winning snooker’s three biggest tournaments, the World Championship, the UK Championships and the Masters – five times, many observers believe he could – and should – have won more.
O’Sullivan announced himself to the world at the Guild Hall in Preston when he won the UK Championship in 1993 at the tender age of just 17.
His 10-6 victory over Stephen Hendry in the final ensured he became the youngest player ever to win a professional ranking tournament, a record he still holds to this day.
Two years later, he became the youngest ever player to win the Masters when he overwhelmed one of his peers John Higgins 9-3 in the final.
Success at the Crucible came a little harder to come by at first and for a few years early on his career, snooker lovers wondered whether he would ever lift the world crown.
He eventually silenced those doubters in 2001 when he got the better of Higgins once more 18-14.
Since then, the ‘Rocket’ has gone on to be a multiple winner in Sheffield.
He is third on the list of world title victories – trailing both Davis (six) and Hendry, who holds the record with seven.
But should he by now have surpassed Hendry’s mark?
The 39-year-old does not appear unduly worried where his glittering achievements rank in the history of the sport.
“If somebody had said to me 22 years ago after I won my first UK Championship that I would be sitting here with five world titles, five UKs and five Masters, I would never have believed them.
“ I am grateful for what I have got, rather than what I haven’t got.
“I’m not greedy.
“To win five triple crowns – I’m happy with that.
“If I retired tomorrow, I would take that absolutely.
“I would like to win a couple more but I would not be too disappointed if that was my lot especially when you consider I’m coming up now against younger guys who are hungrier.
“They are going to get their opportunities in the future.”
A complex character away from the table, O’Sullivan – whose father has served a jail sentence for murder – has battled depression and drug addiction in the past.
In recent years, he has also cut down on the number of tournaments he plays, refusing to live his life out of a suitcase especially as he is a father of three children.
He cites his lack of tournament game-time as one of the key reasons behind his defeat to Stuart Bingham at the quarter-final stage of this year’s World Championships at the Crucible, in Sheffield.
Bingham, of course, went on to lift the title – beating Shaun Murphy 18-15 in a gripping final.
O’Sullivan’s last world title victory was in 2013 when he defeated Barrie Hawkins 18-12 in the final and he concedes adding to his five world titles is going to be difficult especially due to the limited amount of tournaments he enters.
He also has a number of other commitments away from playing which keeps him busy.
But he is not ruling anything out and there is still every chance that he will be the one holding the trophy at the Crucible next May.
“I don’t really know whether I can win another world title to be honest,” O’Sullivan said.
“I will always keep trying, but I am happy with the way things are going at the moment.
“I have got a lot of other stuff away from the table now.
“I do stuff with Eurosport – I’m a global snooker ambassador for them.
“But I would like to continue playing snooker alongside that.
“It’s what Steve Davis has done later on his career.
“I’m trying to balance the two up and I’ve tried it out in a few tournaments so far and it’s been good because it’s meant I’ve not just been sitting around waiting for my next match.
“I’ve had other stuff to do and I’m enjoying that side of things.
“So I am just happy to see how it all goes really.”
O’Sullivan will be returning to Preston’s Guild Hall next month when he is the star attraction of ‘A Night of Snooker Legends’.
He will be going head-to-head with fellow Londoner and six-time world championship finalist White on Thursday, October 15 in a fun but competitive setting.
Ex-world champion Taylor will also be present to entertain the audience along with well-known referee Michaela Tabb.
O’Sullivan is very much looking forward to returning to the scene of his first major triumph 22 years ago – and the place where his life changed irrevocably.
“I did not realise at the time, how much winning the UK Championship in Preston would change my life,” O’Sullivan said.
“It was like being in Big Brother.
“Nobody really knew me at the start of the tournament and than at the end of it, I was the UK champion.
“I wasn’t quite aware of the impact it had until I went home, woke up the next morning and people started saying ‘hello’ to me who I didn’t know.
“It was really weird. Like I say, a bit like being in Big Brother because during the tournament you don’t realise what’s going on in the outside world.
“At that age and growing up as a kid, I never really expected to win any tournament.
“I used to watch snooker on the television and dream of one day playing on the television.
“I never believed I could win a tournament until it happened really.
“Winning the UK Championships at the Guild Hall in Preston was a real shock to me.”
O’Sullivan beat some great players on the way to the title.
In the first round he defeated Scotland’s Alan McManus 9-5 before surviving a humdinger against Nigel Gilbert, of England, clinching the last remaining frame in the second round.
Ireland’s ex-world champion Ken Doherty was then brushed aside 9-5 in the last 16 and the Londoner continued his good form by getting the better of multiple world champion Davis 9-6 in the quarters.
Wales star Darren Morgan was swatted away 9-5 in the semi-finals to set up a mouth-watering final against world No.1 at the time Hendry.
The Scot was the dominant player in the sport at that point, winning six world titles in seven years in the early to mid 1990s. He later clinched a seventh and his final one in 1999.
But against the teenage O’Sullivan in the UK final, he more than met his match.
“I always remember my first round match against Alan McManus,” O’Sullivan said.
“It wasn’t televised, so not many people remember it but Alan was ranked something like No.3 or four in the world at the time, but I went and beat him 9-5.
“There were some really tough games along the way.
“I had played Hendry the week before in Dubai in a semi-final and he beat me 6-2 I think it was.
“But I came out of that match thinking, ‘Okay I got beaten but I could have won it if I had taken my chances’.
“So I kind of had a bit of belief that I could beat Hendry, but to do it in the final of the UK Championships was a huge bonus.”
It seems incredible to think that a 17-year-old upstart was capable of upsetting the best player on the planet at the time on such a big occasion in front of so many spectators in the arena and watching on TV at home.
O’Sullivan, though, believes he was a better player back then compared to when he lifted his first world title when he was aged 25.
He said: “There was no pressure on me really in the final.
“All the pressure was on Stephen. He was the man to beat.
“I was just this little 17-year-old who had come on the scene and nobody really knew me.
“There was no pressure on me to get a result. I had nothing to lose.
“I just went out there, potted some balls and enjoyed it.
“It’s weird. I feel that I was probably a better player when I was 17 than when I won my first world title.
“I just think when I was 17, I was fearless.
“I would just go out, pot balls and not think of the consequences.
“If you like, I was more dangerous when I was 17.
“When I won my first world title, I wasn’t really full of confidence until after I won it.
“But during it, I wasn’t very confident because my career had kind of been delayed in a way because I hadn’t got the results I thought I would have done.
“So I was kind of happier with my game when I was 17, believe it or not.
“But then the last four years have probably been my best as a pro.
“It just shows you with this game that one minute you’re on it, the next you’re not.
“You never know what’s around the corner.”
O’Sullivan enjoyed further success at the Guild Hall, claiming the UK Championship again four years later – ironically beating Hendry 10-6 in the final once more.
The venue is one he loves and would dearly like to see it used again for big tournaments.
“The Guild Hall is one of the biggest and the best venues I have played at,” said O’Sullivan.
“I remember you used to have the qualifiers which weren’t televised so there would be the eight tables and everyone would walk around the top and watch people like Alex Higgins, Jimmy White, Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry.
“It was unbelievable. It was like the outside courts at Wimbledon. The UK Championships was our second biggest tournament so it was one everybody wanted to do well in.
“The fans were always great. I always remember playing to packed crowds.
“It was a shame the UKs got taken away from it because the people of Preston were loyal.
“When it got moved, the other venues never quite lived up to the special nature that the UK Championship had at the Guild Hall.
“It’s a shame really and if it was the players’ choice, they would much rather have kept the UK Championships in Preston rather than all the other places that it’s been at since.”
If you would like to attend ‘A Night of Snooker Legends’ please contact the Guild Hall on 01772 804444. For further information visit the website www.prestonguildhall.com