Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

A Love Letter to Ronnie O’Sullivan

Posted on 23 December 2019 by Thomas Clark

In some sports there is a genuine debate to be had about who is the GOAT.

But when it comes to snooker there is no argument, Ronnie is the GREATEST SNOOKER PLAYER OF ALL TIME, and if you disagree, don’t @ me, because you’re wrong and clearly don’t know anything about snooker.

When you hear the phrase GOAT, what usually ensues is a tedious debate, twitter spats and pointless punditry. 

Messi or Ronaldo, Nadal or Federer, Bolt or Felix? Why can’t we all just revel in the fact that we live in an age where we are lucky enough to watch these supreme sports people?

For me: Usain Bolt. Serena Williams. Lionel Messi. Roger Federer. Simone Biles. Muhammad Ali.

And of course The Rocket.

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Ronnie’s records

Ronnie has 42 different snooker records, a few of my favourites: 

  • He was the youngest player to win a world ranking event aged just 17.
  • He has won more prize money and made more century breaks than any other player. 
  • He is the only player to have made over 1,000 tons. The next best Stephen Hendry has 772.
  • He is level with Hendry on 36 ranking title wins, but is still playing at the top of the sport.
  • He has the most maximum breaks (147) of any player.

The only record that he does not own from the modern era, is the number of World Championships. He has five to Hendry’s seven. But even Hendry acknowledges Ronnie as the most talented and the greatest ever.

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The human side

Despite the records, “The Rocket” is human. He is not invincible. He has very public crises of confidence. 

He calls out other players for playing the game in a way he feels is inferior to his own all action style, Peter Ebdon. He starts petty feuds, Peter Ebdon again. 

He criticises the snooker authorities. He slams venues he does not like, even going so far as to say that Crawley was a hellhole that smelt of urine. He turns down the opportunity to make 147’s if he doesn’t feel the prize money is worth his efforts, yet he still holds the record. 

Just this month he decided he will not play in January’s Masters tournament, and not for the “personal reasons” World Snooker claimed. 

He told Eurosport: “It is a fantastic tournament but I just did not want to play in it this year. I am looking forward to doing some other stuff.”

Despite this, he is a crowd favourite. He is the face of his sport. He is widely known outside of his sport across the UK and China, unlike almost any other player since the mid-80’s to early-90’s. 

The ambidextrous maverick 

He is a right-handed player but sometimes plays left-handed just to keep things interesting. Normally just the occasional shot, as he did in 1996, much to opponent Alain Robideux’s disgust.

Ronnie’s reply: “I’m good left-handed, I’ve made 90 breaks playing that way. In fact, I’m better left-handed than he is right-handed.” 

Ouch.

In fact, Ronnie is more than good left-handed, he is brilliant. He proved this in 2005 against Ali Carter, when he made a century playing almost entirely with his left. 

Not in an exhibition match, but the last 16 of the World Championships. A feat like that needs repeating in bold.

A century, in the last 16 of a World Championships, with his wrong hand. Madness.

He is in short, a genius, a flawed genius, but a genius nonetheless. 

And I love him.

A hero to both Ronnie and I

Jimmy White was the first snooker player that grabbed my attention as a child. The valiant loser. The showman to Hendry’s clinical efficiency. The underdog. The almost but not quite. The six time World Championship runner-up. The people’s champion, but never the champion.

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Even as a little boy, I felt White’s pain, and hated Hendry for it. I would run to the TV and cover the pocket with my hand when Hendry was at the table, thinking if I blocked it then he would miss. He never did.

But as White faded from the top of the game, a new, young player emerged to take on Hendry’s dominance. Ronnie.

Attitude. Energy. Character. All attributes that Hendry seemed not to have Ronnie had in spades. Hendry’s post playing media career has shed a new light on his character and having bumped into him recently, I can confirm he is in fact a lovely guy.

His game was characterised by speed. The Rocket had blasted off.

At 17 he won his first world ranking event. In fact, he won his first 38 matches as a professional. 

Think about that for a second. 

38 matches without defeat. He was 17. 

26 years later, that 38 match record still stands. 

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Snooker Perfection

Perfection in any walk of life is almost impossible. In snooker, Ronnie has achieved it.

21 April 1997. Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. Round one v Mick Price. Ronnie’s 147.

To hit a 147 is rare. Ronnie has 15 of them. The only other player into double figures is Hendry with 11.

Not only did Ronnie make a break of 147, he did it in five minutes and eight seconds. To put this into context, earlier this year Mark Selby took six minutes 13 seconds to play one shot. And he missed it.

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Apologies to Selby, it is not fair to compare anyone other than Hendry or Steve Davis to Ronnie. Selby is a three time World Champion. Ronnie is a magician. 

Ronnie the Alpha

To watch Ronnie play brings to mind a bull preparing for his fight against the Toreador.

The way he strides around the table, owning the arena, all eyes on him no matter who else is playing, is akin to the bull showing his power and dominance in the face of the fight for his life.

Ronnie draws back his cue ready to strike, much as the bull paws the ground in anticipation of the challenge ahead.

And then charge. He powers the cue forward crashing into the white sending it flying towards the red target. Chaos often ensues. 

Well, what looks like chaos to the ordinary spectator but is a calm, calculated, clinical execution of skill from a man in total control of his environment.

Most bullfights end in defeat and death for the unfortunate animal. Even in metaphorical terms that rarely happens to Ronnie. 

His rivals do not have the advantage of a team of helpers and a sword, much as they probably wish they did (maybe not the sword, it is a gentleman’s game played in black tie after all, more James Bond than Anthony Joshua).

Sometimes he fails, more often than not he dispatches his opponent. Often with ease.

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Ronnie in defeat

Ronnie showed he is human in the recent UK Championships when he lost to eventual winner Ding Junhui. The greats all lose at some point. I witnessed Bolt false start and get disqualified at a World Championships, I have seen Federer lose, Serena has not won a grand slam since 2017, Ali lost five times. 

It was the reaction from Ronnie after defeat that grabbed me. He was not surly. He was happy to be interviewed and he could not stop smiling during his post match TV appearance. 

You might think this odd. He lost. The UK Championship was gone. It was his 45th birthday that day.

His career longevity is incredible, so one might assume each tournament carries more weight for Ronnie. Questions to be answered, like can he still do it? How much longer has he got? Surely when he loses in just the last 16 this will devastate him? But no.

He smiled. He laughed. He told Eurosport, he was quite happy to win four frames, and was thinking it was going to be 6-0 or 6-1 on his birthday. 

He is not always so gracious in defeat, but was this time. And why?

Because Ding is an exciting player. A rival Ronnie loves. Someone he wants to watch. He is not Peter Ebdon. 

After a World Championships semi-final defeat to Graeme Dott in 2006, Ronnie said about Ebdon: “I just kind of imploded and sabotaged it. I wanted to lose. I had a fucking meltdown. If I’d have won that match I would have had to play Peter fucking Ebdon for two days.”

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Ding is an exciting but not quite as talented version of Ronnie. He goes for his shots, takes outrageous chances, and Ronnie loves it.

Two characteristics of the ‘boring’ player are safety and tactical play. When he wants to be Ronnie is up there with the best at both of them, as well as being a superb potter and positional player, he just doesn’t often want to play like that. 

It’s why his defeat to Ding makes no difference to his legacy. Maybe he could have played the safety game and bored Ding to defeat, but that’s not Ronnie. 

The showman in Ronnie wanted to win in style. On this occasion it was not to be. But Ronnie being Ronnie he would rather lose going for it than he would win by grinding it out.

For me, this just cements him as one of the greats. Ali always put on a show. Federer wins in style. Bolt looked sideways and smiled down the camera. Ronnie cleans up.

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Offer Ronnie 10 world championships playing slow and tactical or the five he has in his own style and my money is on him choosing his own five.

Legendary status

Maybe this is one difference he has from other sporting legends. If he’s in the mood nobody can beat him, but he has his demons and he is not always in the mood. 

For Federer, Serena, Biles et al, the only thing that matters is winning. For Ronnie, it’s all about the show, and that is what makes him all the more loveable.

However, it is his failures as much as his victories that sum Ronnie up. He has tanked games. He has walked out long before defeat was inevitable. He has threatened on numerous occasions to quit the sport. Even going so far as to begin talks about a breakaway snooker Champions League. 

If any mere mortal snooker player acted like this they would be the pantomime villain of the sport. The player everyone else wanted to beat more than most, the man the fans want to lose. Not Ronnie though.

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He is adored, not just by me, but by all involved in snooker.

He is the fan’s favourite. His rivals respect him. The press cannot get enough of him, even at his stubborn worst, he is a quote machine. 

He is Ronald Antonio O’Sullivan. He is the GOAT. And I love him.

 

Feature image courtesy: DerHexer, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International | Wikimedia Commons