Ronnie O’Sullivan: snooker’s favourite villain

On Monday 2nd May 2022, the cue sports community stopped to see Ronnie O’Sullivan win the World Snooker Championship, the sport’s most coveted title, for the record-equalling seventh time. In his interview afterwards, he declared that he will be back next year in search of his eighth. His assured victory over Judd Trump in the final confirmed to snooker fans what they truly already knew: we are living in a golden age for snooker.

The first thing to say about the sport itself is that it is really, really hard. For those that have never stood at a snooker table, they are huge (twelve by six feet), and the pockets are little wider than the diameter of the balls. It is a sport that requires utmost precision and, perhaps more importantly at the professional level, a granite temperament to cope with missed shots and slip ups under the spotlight. The excruciating pain of underperformance is compounded by the merciless cruelty of having to look on helpless as one’s opponent capitalises ruthlessly on one single mistake. Players spiral and implode with the world watching. Don’t be fooled by the pointy shoes, white gloves and waistcoats: it’s a brutal game.

Snooker in the ‘70s was little more than a pub sport, but this changed fast as a boom in interest gave rise to a huge injection of funds. The investment and involvement of prominent sports-commercial figures such as Barry Hearn (father of boxing promoter Eddie Hearn) triggered explosive growth in the early ‘80s, and the difference showed. Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins won his first World Championship (1972) in front of 100 spectators at a residential park in south-west Birmingham; he claimed his second (1982) in a packed-out Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, watched by 1000 people in the arena and over 10 million on television.

The game has changed a lot over its 50-year professional era. However, one man has shaped snooker and taken it to greater heights than any other: Ronnie’ O’Sullivan.

Known simply as ‘Ronnie’ by most, he has a cult following unlike any player on the circuit.  He receives unwavering fan reinforcement (in the form of slurred grunts of ‘Go on Ronnie!’ from the usually polite, geriatric audience), particularly striking in a game where viewers who ‘support’ a single player are relatively rare. He is a player characterised by extremes: at once outstanding and insolent, weepy and aloof, unyieldingly impressive and utterly unhinged, he has the unlikely reputation as the ‘bad boy’ of snooker. However, Ronnie’s controversy has worked wonders for the game’s popularity. People tune in to watch him play because they don’t know what he’s going to do or say next. He can turn up to a tournament and decimate the competition without breaking a sweat, or can lose in the first round, swear at event staff and behave as though the whole thing was a pointless chore. His unpredictability and emotion in an odd way encapsulate the enduring appeal of snooker.

He is a player characterised by extremes: at once outstanding and insolent, weepy and aloof, unyieldingly impressive and utterly unhinged, he has the unlikely reputation as the ‘bad boy’ of snooker.

On the table, however, his records are unparalleled and unrelenting. The professional snooker season consists primarily of seventeen so-called ‘ranking events’, the most important of which are the UK Championship, The Masters and the World Championship – the coveted ‘triple crown’. Only eleven players in the sport’s history can say they have won each of these competitions at least once during their career, while O’Sullivan alone has 21 triple crown titles – a perfect and truly unfathomable seven of each. He has also won more ranking events than any other player (38), was the youngest player to win both the Masters and the UK Championship and is the oldest World Champion. He has made the largest possible break, 147 uninterrupted points (36 consecutive balls!), more times in televised competitions than any other player (15), and has done it faster than any other (five minutes and eight seconds). The stats speak for themselves: surely he is the greatest ever?

Only one player comes close to Ronnie in snookering achievement – Stephen Hendry. 

Stephen Hendry unequivocally dominated an entire decade in a way never seen before or since. He claimed the 1990s as his own: 7 World Championship titles in 9 seasons, 5 of them back-to-back. Hendry made the century break commonplace and would try to win frames in one visit rather than multiple, and his command of a snooker decade is unrivalled. Yet O’Sullivan remains a cut above; what sets his dominance apart is both the level of competition he faces comparatively, and his longevity. 

In 1992, three of snooker’s all-time greats crashed onto the scene all at once: O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams. The ‘Class of ‘92’ were a big deal back then, but it was after they turned thirty that they showed how unique they really were. They were the first players to continue playing and winning at snooker’s top table into their thirties and forties (Ronnie has won more World Titles since his twenties than during them). This may be a product of the smoking and drinking ban in the professional game (2007), or simply an increased focus on the physical fitness of players, but the trio are credited with breaking through the age ceiling and unlocking the potential for older players to compete.

The Englishman’s 7th world title this month displayed the vintage stylish snooker we have become accustomed to from him; he’s still got it and his ability at the table shows no signs of slowing down. His behaviour regularly suggests that his interest in the game is waning, and it seems that this may be the rate-limiting factor in his career, rather than age-related diminishing ability. But uncharacteristically, the waterworks came out in the heart-swelling presentation ceremony that followed this latest victory. Maybe he still cares, maybe he is interested in breaking his own records once again, and maybe we can hope that he will yet take the sport to higher heights. He represents everything great and gritty in snooker, and what he does with a cue is art. Long may it continue.

Image credit: DerHexer via Wikimedia Commons

Image description: Ronnie O’Sullivan lining up a shot at a snooker table.