They were dressed up in darts shirts at the Champion of Champions event in Bolton last week in an apparent bid to be less stuffy, but snooker’s attempts to appeal to a younger audience should never be about the shirts. It is only ever about who is filling them.
An excruciating second semi-final between John Higgins and Yan Bingtao on Saturday night was a repeat of the Masters final which Yan won 10-8 in January, but could hardly be described as a masterful nor enticing experience for the casual viewer. Despite witnessing nine breaks over 50, it was a contest devoid of elan with 21-year-old Yan preferring to perform like a gnarled veteran.
With both men averaging over 30 seconds a shot, it took over five hours for 11 frames to be played before a closing 89 break from the Scotsman saw him complete a 6-5 win at 12:15am on Sunday morning.
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For a match that began rolling at 7pm, it demands quite a lot of endurance to demand an audience’s attention for such an elongated length of time. It probably did for the attention span of Higgins when he was flogged 10-4 by Judd Trump in the final on Sunday.
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What strikes you with such matches is the apparent abdication by some players of awareness. Of the need to get a move on. A similar outcome occurred during the World Championship final between Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy in May that Selby finally won 18-15.
Murphy made a tongue-in-cheek remark to Selby on social media on Sunday when the world champion joked his average shot time was 37 seconds.
"Is that before or after it’s taken you 4 mins to decide what to play?," said Murphy.
Trophies and prize money remain the ultimate goal rather than responding to the viewing audience’s wants and needs, but Ronnie O’Sullivan is perhaps the only player in history to reconcile both aims. Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins, world champion in 1972 and 1982, was a similar figure in his era as the 'People's Champion', but lacked O'Sullivan's consistency or winning habit.
Winning at all costs will be held up as the ultimate achievement in sport, but descending into torpidity in the pursuit of happiness is hardly a great sell for snooker in its attempt to modernise or appear trendy to TikTokers.
It is a point that is never lost on O’Sullivan, a bloke who managed to sell out the arena at the University of Bolton Stadium on Thursday afternoon and evening simply because people will pay to be entertained.
O’Sullivan celebrates his 46th birthday on 5 December, but remains the fastest player on planet snooker with an average shot time of 16.75 seconds.
He is aware of the requirement to align personal ambition with the need to make the game a cathartic experience for those seeking unique and memorable viewing.
'The most successful snooker player of all time'
Ahead of his opening match against Michael White at the UK Championship in York on Wednesday, O’Sullivan has explained why success can never be measured solely on matches won as he bids to claim a first trophy since his sixth world crown in August 2020.
“I suppose my style of play and the fans that I've attracted has been because of the way I've played,” O’Sullivan told Eurosport.
“I never want to bore the crowd out of an arena. I'd never want to be that player if there was 1000 people watching the match before but when I walk into play my match there is about 70 people there. They've all gone: ‘I’m going home now'.
“I want to be the guy where 1000 people turn up to watch because they want to watch him play.
“It is a great feeling, but then you don't want to play a style of snooker or a brand of snooker which doesn't get victories either.
But I think I've probably been the only player in the history of the game that's played snooker in an attacking flair manner and become the most successful snooker player of all time.
O’Sullivan feels there have been snooker players bringing more intensity to the green baize than he has managed over the past 30 years.
He cites the works of Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and Mark Selby as a quartet of battle-hardened competitors from the past and present of the green baize who made winning the ultimate end game.
But he also feels the road to enlightenment and leaving a legacy is about much more than totting up records.
On the cusp of his 30th year as a professional, O’Sullivan has been the most prolific tournament winner in history with 37 ranking events carried off including six world titles, seven Masters and seven UK titles.
‘I'm not the best all-round player in the world'
He returns to the event which witnessed him become the sport's youngest ranking event winner in history when he usurped Hendry 10-6 in 1993 at the age of 17 years and 358 days, and believes his ability to excel in two key aspects, potting and break-building, has been enough to catapult him into a different sphere from the competition.
“My style of play, you shouldn't win as much. Really, all the logic says you shouldn't win as much," explained O'Sullivan.
"You know, you’ve got to be like [Steve] Davis, [Mark] Selby, methodical John Higgins, [Stephen] Hendry... you got to be like a machine because machines normally win at snooker," said O'Sullivan.
“When they compare me and go: ‘I'm not the best all-round player in the world’, I sometimes think being the best all-round player is probably not a good thing.
Really, what you want to be is very, very good at two out of the three things that are important in snooker.
"Which is potting, break-building and safety play. Then you have the mental side. So probably put four things in there.
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“It is probably not good enough to be good at all of them. You're probably better off being exceptional at two. And okay, at the other two, and I think that's the bracket I fall in.
“I'm exceptionally good at two of them things, and probably not so great at the other two, but still good enough to kind of compete with the other guys if that makes sense?
Maybe being the best all-round player is not good enough to be the most successful player of all time. Which probably goes to prove that with me. I'm probably not the best all-round player yet I've been the most successful player of all time.
“So yeah, there is always an interesting theory on stuff isn’t there.”
The theory of snooker is simple. Pot more balls than your opponent and you win, but O’Sullivan has been on a winning streak in snooker just by competing. He performs the sport as much as play it. He is compulsive viewing in peak form in any sport.
He continues to bring a frisson, fashion – with or without the darts tops – and sense of raw coolness to snooker that had simply been unavailable until he first picked up a cue professionally in 1992.
Like Ali in the Jungle or Jordan in Boston Garden, he continues to transcend his sport. There are great players and then there is O’Sullivan. The debate for snooker is no longer about whether Rocket Ronnie is the greatest, but how do you replace the irreplaceable when he no longer fancies the job?
Changing garb does not provide the answer.
Rocket Ronnie's UK victories
- 1993 Ronnie O'Sullivan 10-6 Stephen Hendry
- 1997 Ronnie O'Sullivan 10-6 Stephen Hendry
- 2001 Ronnie O'Sullivan 10-1 Ken Doherty
- 2007 Ronnie O'Sullivan 10-2 Stephen Maguire
- 2014 Ronnie O'Sullivan 10-9 Judd Trump
- 2017 Ronnie O'Sullivan 10-5 Shaun Murphy
- 2018 Ronnie O'Sullivan 10-6 Mark Allen
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