World Championship 2021: 'Crucible seat isn't worth risk' – Ronnie O’Sullivan on mum's Covid battle
Ronnie O'Sullivan is keen to see snooker fans return, but is concerned about throwing open the Crucible Theatre doors to spectators with the UK's death toll passing a bleak 150,000 on Tuesday. The defending world champion is proud of how his mum Maria fought off Covid-19 on a ventilator at home, but feels the threat of excited "smotherers" pose a serious risk to players, officials and fellow fans.
Ronnie O'Sullivan with his mother Maria (L), son Ronnie (2-R) and sister Danielle after winnning the world title in 2013.
Published 13/04/2021 at 15:11 GMT | Updated 14/04/2021 at 11:33 GMT
Ronnie O’Sullivan feels proud. Ahead of a 29th successive appearance at the World Championship in Sheffield, one might suggest such a sensation is hardly surprising for the sport’s greatest player of all time.
But his pride has nothing to do with ending a seven-year wait to lift his sixth world title last August, reaching five ranking finals this season, his top seeding at the Crucible this year or becoming the first man in history to compile 1100 centuries.
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He also uses Maria’s experience as a timely reminder about the damage the illness can cause to unsuspecting victims.
As pubs, hair salons and retail re-opened in England on Monday, snooker’s biggest headline act cannot help but shudder at the notion that the UK is suddenly out of the danger zone.
He is not an expert epidemiologist, but he can speak as much from personal experience about society’s plight as working out his next positional shot.
“My mum was on a ventilator at home,” said O’Sullivan. “She had to take proper medication. We were lucky and privileged that I was able to call on a doctor who was keen to keep her out of hospital.
“He said: ‘I think she is going to be okay, Ronnie, but buy this, do this and do that.’ She was able to nurse herself better. I was able to go around there to make sure she was alright.
“We were lucky. She did say to me at one stage: ‘I need to go to the hospital, ring me an ambulance’.
“But I said: ‘Let me get my doctor around first’ because I didn’t want to take her to a hospital unless she had to go.
“Once you get into the hospital situation, it could be a worse problem for you.
So I was lucky that my doctor was able to advise, kept an eye on her in the early days and said: ‘Look, I think she is going to be alright'. That was it. She responded well and I was proud of her that she was able to come through it.
In a candid and open interview with Eurosport, O’Sullivan remains none the wiser about how his mum contracted the virus.
But he feels it acts as a warning to everyone about how potent a threat Covid remains in the UK amid the ongoing global pandemic.
“When this first happened she was talking to me around corners in the house. Like a lot of people, quite paranoid about getting it,” he explained.
“I said: ‘Mum, chill out, go for some fresh air, go for a walk and just stay away from people.'
She was really careful, but ‘bang’, then she gets it. You can just be unlucky with this illness. Touching a surface or something. She has been through it all. I’m just relieved she has recovered.
O’Sullivan played last year’s final before a crowd of around 300 at the 980-seat Crucible due to Covid restrictions on his way to an 18-8 win over Kyren Wilson in the final that saw him join Steve Davis and Ray Reardon on six world titles.
It looks like being a lot different with the sport’s diminutive hothouse brimming to full capacity for this year's final in early May as part of a government pilot scheme to allow fans back to venues this summer.
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Testing will be in place, but only the first-round matches will witness any social distancing in a sport that has been marooned in Milton Keynes without the public since O’Sullivan’s victory in Sheffield.
“If they choose they want to go and sit next to each other, that is fine,” said O’Sullivan, who opens the 45th staging of the Crucible tournament against a qualifier on Saturday morning at 10am (BST).
For me personally, I wouldn’t be buying a ticket to go and sit next to someone anywhere for the next two or three years. That is just my personal preference. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it until you know the long-term effects of this illness, I wouldn’t want to take the risk.
“From what I’ve heard so far, I just wouldn’t want to get it. In another few years, if you discover one in five million get it really bad then you chances are if you get it, you aren’t the one in five million.
“But nobody knows the levels or damage it can do. It’s okay getting Covid, but the long Covid is the one you want to avoid.”
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O’Sullivan is keen to entertain the sport’s fans, but is urging them to maintain distance from each other, officials and the players in and around the Crucible.
In an invisible war with a silent killer armed only with hand sanitizer and face masks, O’Sullivan has berated potential “smotherers” who are more interested in themselves than maintaining social distance.
“Everything is fine as long as there is no smothering going on. That’s the only issue. As long as everybody keeps their distance, it is fine,” he insisted.
"It’s not at the venue that’s the problem, it’s going to be coming out the stage door at the Crucible, getting to the hotel in Sheffield..just going about your normal business.
I just hope the smothering doesn’t happen because people get too excited and see someone if they are a (Mark) Selby fan, or a Judd Trump fan or a Neil (Robertson) fan. They’ll run over there and they start breathing, sneezing or coughing or whatever. Then suddenly you get the Covid because you’ve been smothered.
“It is how they manage the excitement of the fans and the people that surround the Crucible in Sheffield.
“We all want to see the fans back at the venue, but there has got to be no smothering. If that can be done, then I don’t see any issues. But is that going to be the case? I doubt it.”
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Image credit: Getty Images
O’Sullivan – who at the age of 44 years and 254 days became the second oldest world champion of all time behind 45-year-old Reardon's 1978 win – enjoyed his sojourn to Sheffield for last year’s delayed event as he used the Covid-19 restrictions around the Yorkshire city to stay nearer the venue while revelling in daily runs.
He is hoping the sport’s organisers will consider the players’ well-being in getting in and out of the Crucible with minimal fuss this time.
“It would be nice if World Snooker Tour can give the players some sort of level of protection so they’re not left to their own devices to have to deal with that situation,” he said.
“If you are going to allow fans, you then have to got to think: ‘How do we get players in and out of the venue safely?’
“When they’re not playing, that’s down to the players.
They’ve got to be careful where they go and what they do, but during match or practice time when they’ve got to go the Crucible, there should be access there without players fearing they’ve got to get through an excited crowd at the entrance, if that makes sense.
In a fitting denouement to a timely health message from the sport’s professor of potting, O’Sullivan is also advising the public to get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity.
“I’ll hopefully get my vaccine in the next few months after Sheffield,” he added.
If there was a doctor here right now with some AstraZeneca, I’d be telling him to pump it right in there. I’d have it straight away.