The two bookends are set 25 years apart.
In 1993, a fresh-faced 17 year-old named Ronnie O’Sullivan downed the reigning world champion Stephen Hendry to win his first major title, the UK Championship.
Some two and a half decades later, his head bestrewn with the scattered grey hairs that mark a man in his mid-forties, O’Sullivan is UK champion for the seventh time, and the proud holder of a record-breaking 19 triple crown titles.
In many ways, maturity is the perfect word to describe O’Sullivan’s performance at the Barbican, York, last week, capped by the 10-6 defeat of Mark Allen in Sunday’s final.
The flashy ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ snooker still comes through in the Rocket’s play on his very best days, but it is now bolstered by the tactical nous and pragmatism of the most steely and wily of operators.
Potential banana skins such as Ken Doherty and Jack Lisowski were negotiated with competent assurance, along with the deceptively simple tasks of ousting Martin O’Donnell and Tom Ford to reach the final.
It was rarely vintage O’Sullivan, but then again it rarely is these days, for the 43 year-old’s burgeoning mental fortitude is what now defines his success, and is the reason why he has won three titles and reached four finals out of the five events he has entered this season. Recently, O’Sullivan has been less Rocket and more Rolls-Royce.
‘O’Sullivan never looked like missing, each shot culminating in the same thumping crescendo of ball on leather, as every red and colour cannoned the stitches in the back of the pockets’
Sunday’s final against Allen was the perfect exhibition of the modern Ronnie. He gave Allen every ounce of respect, appropriate when facing the leading player on the one-year ranking list, hanging in and matching the Northern Irishman’s early pace to go to the interval at 2-2.
It was in the next four frames that O’Sullivan won this final, capitalising upon a blip in Allen’s concentration, which can often affect players in the longer tussles of ranking finals. Blistering long-potting and ramrod-straight cueing, a feature of his game since working with Steve Feeney and SightRight, combined with laser-like safety, saw O’Sullivan end the session 6-2 in front.
For those four frames, O’Sullivan never looked like missing, each shot culminating in the same thumping crescendo of ball on leather, as every red and colour cannoned the stitches in the back of the pockets.
The evening’s action from there seemed a formality, despite Allen’s best efforts to claw his way back into a match that, sadly for him, had been won and lost in the early afternoon.
Snooker’s greatest showman
Indeed, it felt as though O’Sullivan’s name was on the trophy all the way through the competition. The draw was kind to the world No.3, as players like Murphy, Ding and Trump fell by the wayside against less-fancied opposition. The timing was ripe for O’Sullivan to claim that 19th triple crown title which now puts him clear of Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry in terms of major titles won.
It is with that degree of objectivity that O’Sullivan can now lay claim to be snooker’s greatest player of all time. He has chipped away slowly at Hendry’s various records for many years, now eclipsing the Scot in century breaks, maximum breaks, and finally triple crown titles.
The last vestige of Hendry’s domineering legacy is his record of seven world crowns, where O’Sullivan still lags two behind.
The long-form, drawn out nature of the World Championship has been the Rocket’s kryptonite in recent years, having failed to progress beyond the last eight since he lost the final to Mark Selby in 2014. It could be argued that unless O’Sullivan can match that particular record, Hendry will always have the upper hand in terms of objective greatness.
However, what is clear to most, and even Hendry will admit this through slightly gritted teeth, is that O’Sullivan is the most naturally talented player to ever play the game. He is the most entertaining, the most enigmatic — a rollercoaster of a player who has thrilled for over 25 years and showing no signs of slowing down.
While Hendry, through his 10-year dominance of the sport in the 1990s, was perhaps the most feared and venerated cueman, O’Sullivan will always be the most awesome, in the truest sense of that word. From the five-minute maximum at the Crucible in 1997, to his majestic fifth world title in 2013 having not picked up a cue for the entire season, and now to his ongoing quest to reach 1,000 century breaks, the Rocket is the gold standard in snooker, and arguably of individual sport in general.
It is O’Sullivan’s newfound belief in his own abilities, and the greater appreciation of the blessings in life, that have brought about this recent reinvigoration and birthed the kind of mental resilience which was once the missing ingredient from his game.
His work with acclaimed sports psychologist Dr Steve Peters, along with his pursuit of other activities away from the table — cooking, running, writing to name a few — have given him a platform to truly enjoy the craft he loves once again. He is now longer worn down, but rather strengthened by the vicissitudes of sporting life.
“Now I just think, if I play rubbish, who cares? It’s history tomorrow. Look forward to the next one” — Ronnie O’Sullivan
His remarks in an interview with World Snooker after Sunday’s victory were a testament to that more hopeful attitude: “Before, if I didn’t play well, it was rubbish. Now I just think, if I play rubbish, who cares? It’s history tomorrow. Look forward to the next one.”
Such an approach breeds sustainability of one’s talents, and it is the longevity of O’Sullivan’s success that is most striking. To maintain such thrilling standards for 25 years is the mark of the most complete of sportsmen.
Although he makes headlines regularly with his at times ill-conceived comments – in York, these were about breaking away from World Snooker to set set up a rival tour – when you reduce snooker to its purest form, O’Sullivan is the finest exponent of this great sport the world has ever seen.
He is snooker’s rocket man, blasting through records one by one with singular power and beauty. It’s going to be a long, long time before we see another quite like him.