Ronnie O’Sullivan exclusive: World snooker champion on how he beat self-doubt to lift seventh title
Ronnie O’Sullivan passed snooker’s ultimate test to claim a career-defining seventh Crucible title, but the world champion tells Desmond Kane why the journey to potting paradise remains one of the most mentally demanding and draining in professional sport. “I just wasn’t sure if it was possible," O'Sullivan told Eurosport as he reflected on securing his legacy as the snooker GOAT.
Who needs the Rovers Return when you have the Rocket’s return?
Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump’s very own epic kitchen-sink drama in Yorkshire last Monday evening proved more engaging for the great British public than Coronation Street or EastEnders on the other two main terrestrial TV channels.
Betty Turpin’s hot pots from Corrie were never as tasty as the hot pots Rocket Ronnie can serve up.
In discovering the level of snooker’s popularity from a breathless 17 days at the 46th World Championship, O’Sullivan said: “Oh really? Wow. Amazing. It is brilliant getting more viewers than Coronation Street.
It is really good that everybody is excited by snooker again. Maybe it has taken a little turn and is on the up.
“It is a long time playing at the World Championship, a lot of stress and I'm just recovering. It is hard work, but it was job done, so worth it.”
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Some four decades on, O’Sullivan’s career-defining victory broadcast to millions across the BBC and Eurosport was as much of a cliff-hanger as Dirty Den divorcing Angie in the Queen Vic as the sport's two brightest talents illuminated the final with their unique attacking colour.
O’Sullivan is the undisputed king of his domain after an awe-inspiring few weeks saw him reach seventh heaven with his inimitable élan, technical supremacy and swagger with cue in hand.
He stands alongside Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and White as genuine crowd-pleasers who have changed the face of snooker since the Crucible first housed the World Championship in 1977, bringing a greater popularity to the green baize beyond working-class blokes potting balls in darkened halls set against the sweat of heavy industry.
When Higgins lifted his second world title in 1982, the Northern Irishman memorably cradled baby daughter Lauren, wife Lynn and the trophy as the tears flowed.
In a timely little slice of history repeating itself 40 years later, O’Sullivan – the natural successor to Higgins and White as 'The People’s Champion' – sobbed as the enormity of the achievement sunk in with dad Ronnie Sr and kids Lily and Ronnie Jr joining him to celebrate. Memories are made of his.
“I didn't wake up last Tuesday feeling any different. I just thought that it was more about everybody else enjoying themselves,” he said.
“My dad was there for the whole three weeks of the tournament enjoying it, hanging out with a lot of snooker people that follow the game.
“Then I thought it would be great if the kids could be there if they wanted to. It was a good experience for everyone as it might never happen again.
That was more important to me. It was nice to win it, but it was more important that everyone else enjoyed it. It was really nice.
“It was a relief to get the job done. It was a professional job. It’s a test. That is how I look at it every time I enter a tournament like that.
“You go there and prepare as well as you can. To win it is great. You don’t always win it, but it is nice to win it again at my stage in the game.”
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O’Sullivan usurped the Welshman Ray Reardon – the tactical coach behind his 2004 triumph – to become the oldest world champion since the inception of the modern era.
O’Sullivan had 46 years and 148 days behind him when he held aloft the little silver lady on a priceless Bank Holiday Monday.
Reardon was 45 years and 203 days when he completed a 25-18 win over South Africa’s Perrie Mans in the 1978 final to carry off his sixth and final world title.
O’Sullivan concedes the level of play he reached suggests his career at the elite level can run for several more years after rolling in 15 century breaks and 46 knocks over 50.
It is perhaps fitting that O'Sullivan is planning to release a Netflix-style fly-on-the-wall documentary surrounding his rise to a seventh crown.
A camera crew apparently tailed his every move in a style similar to Michael Jordan's last NBA season with the Chicago Bulls in 1998 titled The Last Dance.
For O'Sullivan, this was never going to be the last chance, but better to tie up legacy loose ends now.
A remorseless single-mindedness in such a cut-throat environment is a quality O'Sullivan shares with Jordan, Roger Federer, Lionel Messi and Tiger Woods in other fields of play.
He knows how and when to get the job done on the grandest stage of all. Like all the great champions, he also senses the right time to express his superior class.
With a record 39 ranking titles carried off and 1,169 centuries compiled, he is the sport’s undisputed GOAT, a seventh wonder of the sporting world since turning professional in 1992. To argue otherwise does not make sense.
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This is astonishing longevity in a solitary, mentally undulating game that can play tricks on the mind when you are stuck in a chair and the other guy is potting balls.
The World Championship is no place for weak or wilting spirit with Peter Ebdon, hardly resembling 'Big' Bill Werbeniuk, infamously shedding stones due to the nervous energy of winning the trophy in 2002 with a fraught 18-17 win over Hendry.
Not that O'Sullivan spends too much time isolated in his seat. When he is at the table, he plays like he owns it. He is enshrined by a youthfulness, vibrancy and expressiveness that bewitches millions across the globe.
“I’m 46 banging on 47 so to know I can still win it lets me know I could have another five decent years,” said O'Sullivan.
I don’t think you can go from winning the World Championship to falling off the radar overnight. It is just a nice little confidence booster really.
“It is such a long tournament. It is a bit like the Grand Slams in tennis when they play five sets rather than just the three.
“It is more about lasting the event more than anything. A lot of players reach the quarter-finals and by then they think they’ve run their course.
“Whereas the top players are better conditioned, have been over the course and know how to pace themselves.
“The World Championship is similar to that. You make the semi-finals and once you get to that point you are still only halfway through so you want to leave a bit in the tank.
“That just comes with experience and knowing what it takes to get over the line.”
O’Sullivan felt his form was on an upward trajectory at the Gibraltar Open in March despite losing 4-3 to Ben Woollaston in the first round.
His optimism was further enhanced at the Tour Championship when he edged out Mark Williams – a marvellous competitor who only lost 17-16 by Trump in the Crucible last four – 10-9 in the quarter-finals in Llandudno before losing 10-9 to Neil Robertson in the semi-finals last month.
He weighed in with 10 tons and eight half centuries to hint at greater riches.
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“The minute it switched on for me was when I went to Gibraltar," he admitted.
“Even though I lost, I felt like I was playing well despite missing the odd few balls. A week before I went to Llandudno, I put some good practice in. I was scoring well.
“There were a couple of things that needed sharpening up in my game, but I played great in Llandudno and went away for two weeks before the worlds.
“I put in a lot of hard work before the tournament, sharpened up and by the time I got to Sheffield I thought: ‘My game is in good shape’.
“If it comes together great, but if it doesn’t what can you do. But I felt my game was alright.
I just wasn’t sure if it was possible to do it. Sometimes you can do everything right, but maybe you don’t have the stamina or the consistency of a few years ago or whatever.
“Who knows? But yeah, I surprised myself there.”
Achieving immortality in the toughest of all cue sports does not come easy even for the green baize's main protagonist. The tale of the table does not always reward the best man.
He trailed 3-0 to David Gilbert in his tournament opener, but was a figure of unrelenting focus in adversity, ending the first session 6-3 clear in a match from which he would run out a 10-5 winner. His unflustered play was a pivotal theme of the event. Almost like he knew the end destination was more likely than not if he refused to panic.
He overpowered Mark Allen 13-4 in the last 16 before shredding Stephen Maguire 13-5 in the quarter-finals.
A match with his fierce foe John Higgins – the player he defeated 18-14 to claim his first world title in 2001 – was always likely to prove the ultimate test of O’Sullivan’s technique in the three-day semi-final torture chamber. The talent has never been in doubt.
Ronnie O'Sullivan after claiming his seventh world title.
Image credit: Eurosport
Two key moments of that contest summed up O’Sullivan's commitment to the cause after he had trailed 3-0: his opportunism to force a re-spotted black in the 16th and final frame of the second session that gave him a 10-6 lead before the final day.
And the miraculous clearance of 82 he made leading 10-7 on the Saturday morning after a taut period of tough safety play with the Scotsman attempting to turn the match back in his favour.
That break was arguably the most memorable of the tournament, ranking alongside the 92 he produced in the seventh frame of the 2012 final against Ali Carter in an 18-11 win.
It provided O’Sullivan with the impetus to complete a comfortable 17-11 victory over Higgins, who was left proclaiming him as the greatest in history.
“It is a mammoth tournament,” O'Sullivan commented.
I don’t think I’m the best potter or the best in any department. I’m about eight or nine out of 10 in every department and it was that consistency over the 17 days that got me through.
"I was just competing in every area and doing all things pretty well.
“I remember nicking a frame when I needed two blacks and won it on the re-spotted black against John. I also remember we had a long drawn out safety battle with me and Higgins then potting a long red before clearing up.
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“Just lots of frames were big turning points. When you win the close ones against John, you know you’ve got a chance.
"It is alright winning frames with big breaks. That is nice, but at some point in these events you are going to face someone who is scoring as well as you and then it comes down to who can pinch the close ones.
“As I got into the match with John, I started to eke out a few of those close ones. That dented his confidence, gave me more confidence and probably changed the momentum of the match.
“John is more suited to winning the tactical frames and I’m probably more suited to the open scoring frames, but it was good to compete with him in the ones where he was probably favourite.”
'Terrific break' - O'Sullivan produces unbelievable clear-up against Higgins
O’Sullivan’s impeccable rise to the title in the final was far from a coronation. He galloped 12-5 clear on the first day of the final only for Trump, the 2019 champion, to claw his way back to 14-11 behind before the conclusion loomed large with the destination of the title unclear.
Rather than look over his shoulder, O’Sullivan quickly disposed of the permutations with a composed air emanating from his cue, compiling unerring breaks of 82, 88, 75 and 85 to complete a stylish gallop to the game's biggest prize.
One recalls speaking to Jimmy White during the 2012 Masters when the elite tournament was first staged at the Alexandra Palace.
O’Sullivan had lost 6-2 to Trump in the quarter-finals of the event, an encounter that was being described back then as a “changing of the guard”.
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“Ronnie has got five or six world titles left in him. He is too good. He is far too good.”
The Whirlwind has turned out to be a snooker soothsayer. O’Sullivan has lifted another four titles since that point. Who would bet against him reaching 10 before he pots his final ball? Certainly not Jimmy.
The work carried out with celebrated sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters to maintain a positive mindset and maintain mental equilibrium was a key element in his latest triumph.
At times I felt like the cue ball was on a piece of string. I was putting it where I wanted. In some ways, it didn’t matter where the balls were.
“I just knew there were keys shots I had to get to and I was confident I was able to do it.
“It is a good feeling winning frames from virtually impossible positions.”
Ronnie O'Sullivan and his family celebrate with the trophy after his victory over Judd Trump at the World Championship
Image credit: Getty Images
Car retailer Cazoo will replace bookmakers Betfred as sponsors of the 47th World Championship next year, but O’Sullivan hopes the viewing figures can entice greater interest in the sport.
“If you want a blue-chip company, you have to change the image of the sport in many ways,” he said.
“At the moment, it is dominated by betting companies, but other sponsors may not want to be associated with that. I don’t know.
"In Formula One you have betting companies and Rolex so maybe that isn’t right. It just depends on how they see snooker.
“It would be great if the game could kick on like the 1980s. Tobacco companies sponsored snooker and a lot of the big sporting events back then but who knows?
“The viewing figures are great so that is always a good thing to put in front of people.
They’re looking for eyeballs and there are 4.5 million eyeballs watching the final so any sponsor wanting their product to be seen..these are important statistics to show them.
O’Sullivan famously took a season off between his fourth and fifth victories at the event in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but plans to throw himself into the new campaign with new worlds to be conquered. A few more of them in Sheffield perhaps.
He could return at the European Masters in August, but the British Open in late September is likelier.
His appearance as world champion in Brentwood for the English Open in December should be one to savour before a raucous home crowd.
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“The season starts again in August so I’m pretty much going to play in most things,” he said. “I won’t practise much. I’ve got a few exhibitions and a few holidays with the family.
“Come September/October time, I’ll start getting my head down again to practise. I’m just going to play in virtually every tournament.
It doesn’t matter if I win or lose. As long as I keep the rustiness off so when I do start practising it will only take a week to get back in full flow.
“I haven’t looked at the calendar properly, but I’ll take a look and decide from there."
‘Don’t start’ – O’Sullivan in big row with referee
O'Sullivan's opportunism is perhaps only rivalled by the launch of his own '7 Collection' the day after the final that included the amusing "You saw nothing" response to referee Olivier Marteel after he had been accused of an inappropriate gesture.
Clothing and cups are all the rage these days in sport, but what was the plan if he had not reached seven?
“Keep them for next year mate."
Judging by this latest astonishing triumph for O'Sullivan's timeless vitality, the merch could be out of date by then.
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