The Rocket Man: Ronnie O’Sullivan

Ok, this one, despite the title, is definitely not going to be a music piece.

Some people don’t get snooker, I get that. Watching two men spend 15 minutes attempting to move red balls a fraction of a millimetre one way or another… well, when you put it like that, it’s easy to sympathise. However, one of the few things I inherited from my dad, aside from an- at times- almost crippling lack of self confidence, was a love of the green baize. My dad was a decent club player, never going to be a professional but had a high break of 92 on a full size table, which is pretty good. Is it weird that I can still remember that almost 15 years after I last spoke to him? The one sporting trophy we had in our house was a snooker one that my dad had won somewhere. When I was a kid, we had a six foot table that would come out on Sunday night’s so we could play a bit. As I got older, and mum and dad divorced, he would sometimes take me to the Riley’s on Hounslow High St.

By the time we fell out, or I decided that I wasn’t prepared to compete with his love for alcohol anymore, I had started going to that Riley’s with my friends Chris and Gabs. That lasted for as long as it took them to start going to a fucking shooting club! Whilst Gabs and I always had close games, I never managed to beat Chris- who had a little 4 foot table at home and, crucially, the one thing I never mastered (one of many things, I suppose), cue ball control.

Anyway, I love snooker. I love watching snooker so much that I’m convinced my need to watch every ball of the 2002 World Final (Ebdon v Dott,  one for the purists, that) was a contributory factor in a relationship breaking up the following month. As much as I love watching snooker, though, I find great sympathy with the view put forward that,

“I wouldn’t say snooker’s dead without me, but it’s better with me in it.”


Who said that? Well, the reigning World, and newly crowned Masters Champion did. Something like that, anyway. And, as he proved last April, in winning the World Championship after a year away from the snooker treadmill, Ronnie O’Sullivan… well, he’s different gravy.

To watch the man known as “The Rocket” in action is to watch a tremendously difficult game made to look as simple as mowing your lawn. That’s when he’s playing well, of course. It hasn’t always been that way. Some of The Rocket’s antics down the years have been a cause of consternation to the paying public- particularly when he walked out of a match with Stephen Hendry; some of them a cause of aggravation to his peers. As a huge fan of Ronnie’s, and having read both of his books, I think it’s easy to sympathise with someone who had to deal with both his parents going to prison when he was a young man, a kid really. How wouldn’t that affect you for the rest of your days?

It’s well known that a big part of Ronnie’s resurgence- back to back world titles (with a year off in between)- is down to the work he has down with Dr Steve Peters. Dr Peters has helped Ronnie to control “the chimp” on Ronnie’s shoulder, who would, in the past, cause Ronnie to implode with often spectacular results.

I resisted the opportunity to make a “chimplode” pun there, be proud of me.

In his latest book, Running, Ronnie speaks about the pressure of the World Championship, how you can look at people at the quarter final stage and just know that they’ve gone; their physical appearance an outward projection of mental disintegration. It strikes me that there’s no way Ronnie would now be able to deal with those, highly intense, 17 days in Sheffield without that input from Dr Peters. Maybe I’m doing him a disservice, after all he had won it three times already when 2012 came around. The World Championship, as anyone who watches it knows, is not just about talent- Ronnie would win every year if it was- but being able to deal with pressure. Lots of it.

And he is doing it now. It’s incredible to think that, at 38, the man routinely regarded as “the most naturally gifted player to ever play the game” might actually be improving. Or “maturing” as Steve Davis put it on television last night.

Oh yes, last night. It was funny to watch the Master Final last night and listen to John Virgo trying to explain why Ronnie, the current World #24 was playing in a tournament for the top 16 players in the world. The correct answer was that Ronnie, as World Champion is automatically seeded #2 for all tournaments. The obvious answer is that he is the best player in the world and the Masters would clearly be poorer for his absence.

That’s just my take on it, but in a tournament regarded to be second only to the Sheffield marathon, Ronnie breezed through the competition and played some devastating snooker. Rob Milkins managed to take one frame off Ronnie in a 6-1 defeat, Ricky Walden couldn’t even manage that, he didn’t score a single point in 5 frames. Stephen Maguire came and went 6-2.

And then it was just Mark Selby and Ronnie…

The defending Masters Champion against the World Champion. The, no quarter, method man versus a (not so) fragile genius. Kind of like when Chelsea play Arsenal. It promised to be close. Owing to Ronnie’s comments about “The Jester” in his book, it promised a certain amount of needle. As a result of Selby’s granite style of play, Ronnie had described Selby as “the Torturer”, which is actually kind of a compliment when you think about it. Although it also does the Leicester cueman a disservice; on his “A” game, he is as fluent as anyone- with the exception of Ronnie O’Sullivan.

So, yeah, it promised to be close, for about as long as it took Ronnie to race into a 3-0 lead and then 4-0 at the mid session interval, almost totally freezing Selby out. Then 5 and against anyone else you would have thought, well it’s game over. But with Mark Selby, you couldn’t rule out the possibility of a comeback. And Selby duly got one on the board. But Ronnie playing with a focus and a determination to prove, as the watching Stephen Hendry said, that “he’s the best player in the world”, took the next frame. He did so in heartbreaking fashion for the defending champion, clearing the colours to level the frame score and then potting the respotted black. When Ronnie won the final frame of the first session to lead 7-1, the writing wasn’t so much on the wall as sprayed all over the Alexandra Palace in 20 feet high black capital letters.

On the evening resumption, Selby looked a beaten man, even more so when Ronnie took the opening frame of the session. Just two more required and the humiliation of not even making it to the mid session interval loomed for the defending champion. And then, showing that even geniuses get it wrong some time, Ronnie inexplicably rattled a regulation frame ball brown in the jaws, allowing Selby to clear to the black.The black would allow Selby to pinch the frame. He missed it off its spot, but left a tricky cut for Ronnie. He also missed, but left the ball over the pocket. As beat up as the Jester from Leicester was, he wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity.

8-2 became 8-3 with a gutsy 67 from Selby, before Ronnie grabbed the last frame before the interval to stamp out any thoughts of a miracle. Selby won the first frame after the restart, but he was just delaying the inevitable. There were to be no fireworks in the final frame, and no centuries in the final to a tournament which had been strangely lacking in that department, but no matter. The five times World Champion had now become the 5 time Masters Champion and was able to celebrate that fact with his kids.

Perhaps just as importantly, he showed Mark Selby just what the best player in the world looks like.

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