x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Ronnie O'Sullivan has left us snookered

Securing a fifth World Championship – despite having not picked up a cue for the better part of 12 months – serves as a celebration and a conundrum for the game.

Ronnie O'Sullivan secured a fifth World Championship despite taking a self-imposed exile since he won at The Crucible last year. Warren Little / Getty Images
Ronnie O'Sullivan secured a fifth World Championship despite taking a self-imposed exile since he won at The Crucible last year. Warren Little / Getty Images

That old saying, that snooker is the sign of a misspent youth? Has that ever felt truer than when Ronnie O'Sullivan has been doing the snookering?

On Monday evening, O'Sullivan won the fifth world title of his career, and as ever, there was something delinquent, even truant-ish, about the triumph: O'Sullivan playing hookey from life to play snooker.

There were the usual accoutrements of a Ronnie win. On moving into the semi-finals before the weekend he said he was only playing the tournament because he needed to make "a bit of money." His children's school fees, he explained with a little too much honesty, were overdue.

He was reprimanded in the semi-final for making a lewd gesture with his cue, after missing a ball in the penultimate frame.

And of course, after winning the tournament, there came the now-traditional end to almost every public O'Sullivan interaction: a declaration of an ambiguous intent to retire, or semi-retire, or only play in the World Championships, or maybe a small event somewhere in China, or maybe, well, whatever. He has already retired enough times to populate an entire community in Florida.

Nothing felt more customary, though, than the winning itself. A fifth world title now puts him behind Stephen Hendry (seven), Steve Davis and Ray Reardon (six apiece). He became only the third player after Hendry and Davis, and the first in 17 years, to successfully defend his crown.

If, in hindsight, this was inevitable, then it speaks as highly of O'Sullivan as it does poorly of snooker. He had barely picked up a cue to play professionally in the 12 months since he won the world title last year and supposedly retired.

Even more than needing to pay the school fees, he said he came back because of boredom.

"My main motive wasn't to come here and win it, it's just I was so bored, sitting on the sidelines and nothing going on," he said. "I thought I could do with something to keep me busy for the next six weeks, preparing for the worlds."

I got bored, I came, I played, I conquered, I left. This is basically a declaration of genius.

It didn't matter that he had been out for a year, working on a farm, spending time with his kids and getting fat, though that is not much of an obstacle in snooker. He was still good enough - easily so - to beat the best in the world and win the sport's most prestigious title.

And as the noted snooker journalist Dave Hendon pointed out, that should really be the focus of this win how great O'Sullivan is to have accomplished what he did. Asking how poor the rest of the field is, writes Hendon, is to consider the wrong question.

Wrong or right, it is surely the more difficult question to consider. What does it say of snooker when a fat, father of two who prefers being a farmhand wins the biggest tournament?

That characterisation is mischievously glib, but the point remains: what is the standard for the rest of the field if a rusty, and perhaps partially disinterested, O'Sullivan is still winning?

The general consensus, which includes Hendry and two-time world champion Mark Williams, seems to be that this world championship was the poorest in terms of competitive quality for a few years.

But even more than O'Sullivan turning up and winning titles when he wants, what will be the impact on the game once he really decides to leave? All sport ultimately survives the exits of its biggest stars, but as the scope and structure of the game changes under Barry Hearns, snooker needs some new ones pretty fast O'Sullivan long ago transcended his sport, which was great for the snooker, but it dually made replacing him close to impossible.

People who do not know the sport know O'Sullivan, and sometimes watch because of him. How many of us would be able to identify Mark Selby if he walked past? That would be Mark Selby, the current world No 1.

Forget snooker. What will sport and the public at large do without a man like O'Sullivan? Take a little time to read through his thoughts during and after he won the title.

You will not read a more compelling, entertaining and honest reaction to participation, and ultimately, triumph, all year.



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