Ronnie O’Sullivan is the greatest snooker player the world has ever seen. This is not a disputable statement, however many times the sport’s leading voices say he needs to surpass Milestone X to prove it. When he’s playing well, he makes shots that leave Stephen Hendry speechless, and when he hasn’t played for a full year, he’s still capable of coming straight into the gruelling World Championships and winning it at a veritable canter.
What annoys snooker’s punditry team about O’Sullivan, though, is that he isn’t the greatest “snooker player” ever, in the sense that he doesn’t provide the consistent, aspirational hook that Tiger Woods did for golf or Manchester United did, under Alex Ferguson, for football. He is a mercurial, volatile figure, seemingly at odds with the often strangled atmosphere of a snooker arena; in short, if there is an antithesis to snooker, it often appears to be its most brilliant player himself.
O’Sullivan’s struggles with depression, drugs, and apathy towards the sport he dominates have often resulted in an ugly concoction of pity and jealousy from those within the sport’s archaic commentary boxes, and at times during the peak of his difficulties, there was an unspoken (and, sometimes, spoken) suggestion that he should suck it up and get on with being great at sport. Needless to say, the people who translucently harbored this view cared more deeply for the prosperity of the game than the well-being of Ronnie O’Sullivan, even if it was often dressed up in sympathy’s clothing.
In 2014, it appears as though the storm has settled. Two back-to-back World Championships have likely sated even the perfectionist mind of Ronnie O’Sullivan, and a third looks likely this weekend. But it’s a disservice to isolate his achievements in the sport as a product of sporting effort, because for all the many hours on a practice table, O’Sullivan has always attracted justified labels of ‘genius’ and ‘gifted’. It can be no coincidence that his improved temperament around the table and circuit has come with a more settled mentality away from the baize. What this says about sport is perhaps obvious but clearly bears repeating; there’s no such thing as sportspeople, just people who play sport.
Snooker is as mechanical a sport as they come, in truth – a game whose occasional moments of release (delight, humour, anger) are the necessary antidote to an almost-ceaseless quietness and frustration. The crowd hold their breath, the players shake hands every forty seconds, and the history of the game weighs on the shoulders of its image greatly. Is it really such a surprise that the enigmatic O’Sullivan, with his indifference and flair, has provided much-needed respite from the suffocation of a field where even the occasional smile has you labelled a “character”?
What makes O’Sullivan so interesting is that he betrays the old notion that successful sporting figures achieve what they do out of absolute commitment to their sport at the expense of every other aspect of their lives. During his year out, he worked on a farm, a not-very-opaque signal that he maybe perceives his talent as an odd thing to reward. He shows an interest in Buddhism, despite denying a commitment to any religion. These are the ways that O’Sullivan releases the tension that the sport he loves builds up in him – sometimes big, sometimes small, but never with the damaging sort of privacy that leads us to believe sportspeople are a different species to the rest of us – mood swings, tough breaks and all.