In much the same way that no World Cup can truly be said to have started until Brazil take the field, the Snooker World Championship (19 April to 5 May) doesn’t really get underway in earnest until Ronnie O’Sullivan has graced the baize.
Arguably in the form of his life at an age (38) when most players start slowing down, The Rocket is a clear favourite to lift the title, a full 13 years after first doing so.
Victory in Sheffield would complete a remarkable hat-trick of championships and put him level with Steve Davis on six, and only one behind Stephen Hendry. We caught up with the wayward genius on the eve of the championship.
Why do you think the public has taken to you over the years, to the extent that you’ve now got your own TV show on Eurosport?
I think there’s a kind of intrigue there because sometimes people have said, ‘Oh he doesn’t control his emotions very well, he’s very up and down, a very complex type of character.’ The flipside of that is that sometimes you get moments of presence, moments of genius, and I think maybe people wonder what’s going to happen next.
I suppose the last two or three years I’ve been a lot more consistent in my attitude and controlling my own emotions and my game. I’ve played much more balanced. But if you look back at my career over 20 years – UK Championship at 17, that’s obviously quite a big impact to have for a first time professional, and then the 5m 23sec 147, there are moments in my career that people remember. Even to this day I’ve still got people coming up to me talking about the 147, talking about walking out on Stephen Hendry (in 2006), there’s so many little things that have gone on. I think people have enjoyed it. And I love snooker, and people know that I love snooker, that I’m passionate about it.
Can you put your finger on why you’ve had such a resurgence in form in recent years?
In the Nineties you had Stephen Hendry, John Higgins, me, Mark Williams, Paul Hunter – you’re talking about five of probably the best players to have ever played the game all coming together at once. And obviously you could throw Steve Davis in there as well. I liken it a little bit to the tennis players you have now, like Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. I’m not saying the standard is not high at present, but it was a lot harder to win events in the 1990s than it is today. And I’ve been finding some really good form on the table, so maybe the type of players that are around today suit my game better. Over the last two or three years in some tournaments, some matches, I’ve virtually been unplayable. And I know that. I think, ‘They’re not going to beat me today, the way I’m playing.’ That’s not to say that I can’t be beaten, but I’m out there feeling very confident.
For snooker fans, the World Championship is the best 17 days of the year. How do you get through the endurance aspect of the tournament?
Experience has taught me that going into Sheffield I’ve got to trust everything I’ve been doing over the previous six to nine months. My game’s in much better shape than it has been for a long time so you get into a kind of cruise control mode. You’re playing within yourself most of the time – you do what you need to do because obviously you’re playing against top level competition. You have a lot of time between matches so it’s important not to over-analyse yourself because there’s a lot of snooker to be played. It’s about getting through the first three rounds and then come the semi-finals and the one table set-up you’re really going to have to play well and say, ‘Right, this is mine to win.’
The Ronnie O’Sullivan Show is on British Eurosport 2 at various times on 17, 18, 19 and 20 April
This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.