Sometimes it’s the ones you most expect.
Ronnie O’Sullivan came to Sheffield this year newly installed as world no.1 and chasing history. He leaves the steel city confirmed as snooker’s greatest ever player with more success surely ahead of him.
His 18-13 defeat of Judd Trump in the World Championship final made for fascinating viewing, but it was the scenes afterwards which will live long in the memory, O’Sullivan in floods of tears as he held on to Trump before hugging two of his children.
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This was the real Ronnie, a big-hearted, emotional man with snooker running through his veins experiencing the dawning realisation that he had tied Stephen Hendry’s modern-day record of seven world titles. It was a moment for the ages.
Later, with typical directness, he described the whole tournament as “torture”. But for O’Sullivan, the pain is the point.
In everything he does, he goes all in. Some players, maybe most, are content to earn as decent a living as they can from snooker without ever pushing themselves to breaking point. The same cannot be said about O’Sullivan, whose love/hate relationship with a sport he has bestrode like a colossus for three decades is well documented.
When O’Sullivan goes running, he’s not out for a jog. He takes his body to its limits. In snooker, it’s his mind that is tested to the full. In 2011, beginning to struggle, he went to see Dr Steve Peters, a psychiatrist who has made his name working with sportspeople.
Dr Peters gave him practical advice about controlling his emotions, which O’Sullivan has clung to in the decade since. It has helped him not only to prolong his career but keep thriving at the very highest level.
Some in the sport complain that too many tournaments become the 'Ronnie O’Sullivan Show', but this really was. He was followed everywhere by a documentary crew making a film about his bid for a seventh title, which may have acted as extra motivation to focus hard on every aspect of what is needed to win snooker’s biggest event, on the table and off.
Nobody really threatened him until the last day. Dave Gilbert led him 3-0 in their first-round contest but wilted after the match was levelled. Mark Allen and Stephen Maguire could not come back after falling well behind early on. John Higgins dug in without ever playing his best snooker.
The early part of the final was disappointing as a spectacle before Trump made a fight of it. We want the showpiece match to be close as it is often how the championship is defined. But this one will be remembered for O’Sullivan’s historic feat, 21 years in the making since his first Crucible triumph in 2001.
- 'He was in a cell on his own' - Emotional O'Sullivan on dad seeing win this time
- ‘What he said just done me in’ – Tearful O’Sullivan on hug with Trump
- ‘The best of all time’ - Trump says O’Sullivan is ‘getting better’ after world final
‘Probably my greatest result’ – O’Sullivan on seventh world title
Before the last session of that year’s final, there was a procession of former champions. Jimmy White, who famously never won the title, was also brought out on the basis that he was the ‘people’s champion’. Observing this from his dressing room, O’Sullivan resolved never to be in that position.
He was 25 and his great contemporaries, Higgins and Mark Williams, had already won the game’s most prized title. There were questions as to whether O’Sullivan’s often traumatic personal life would impinge on his chances. Did he have the discipline to last 17 days in Sheffield?
It was Higgins he beat in the final to settle all doubts. More titles followed in 2004, 2008, 2012 and, despite only playing one match all season ahead of the championship, 2013.
His defeat to Mark Selby in 2014 was a setback it took years to recover from, but he finally did by beating his arch-rival in the semi-finals of the 2020 event, on the way to winning title no.6.
And now it is seven. When O’Sullivan first burst onto the scene, many predicted he would become the youngest ever world champion. That didn’t happen, but he is now the oldest.
There is a bittersweet moment at the end of each World Championship. After the ticker-tape trophy presentation has ended and the champion leaves the arena, the backstage crew move in to dismantle the table and set. It means it is all over for another year and we are left to reflect on the 17 days just gone.
The 2022 edition was a memorable one, not just because of its historic ending. The first round brimmed with quality matches, the best of which was Kyren Wilson’s 10-8 victory over Ding Junhui.
Round two was notable for an unexpected cameo appearance by a pigeon and the longest ever frame at the Crucible. The 85-minute affair between Yan Bingtao and Selby would have made grisly viewing anywhere else, but late on in their best of 25 frame encounter was compelling.
The standout night came on the second Monday when Neil Robertson made a 147 break but was defeated 13-12 by Jack Lisowski, who then starred in another thriller in the quarter-finals, losing 13-12 to Higgins.
The 'Class of ’92' all reached the semi-finals, where O’Sullivan won one of the championship’s most dramatic frames on a re-spotted black to lead Higgins 10-6 overnight rather than 9-7.
'He was in a cell on his own' - O'Sullivan on his dad watching him at Crucible this time
The other semi between Trump and Williams looked set to fizzle out when Trump led 7-1 but the Welshman roared back to take it the full distance, proving yet again that the pay-off for long matches is the excitement of a close finish after such emotional investment from the audience.
The final was eagerly awaited, but Trump did not really show up on day one. His A-game is frightening but he did not produce it anywhere regularly enough.
However, he grew stronger on Monday afternoon as O’Sullivan began to make mistakes. A huge fluke in the last frame of session three helped leave the match tantalisingly poised at just 14-11.
But when the evening came, it was like a new match again. O’Sullivan sprinted for the winning line like a man who sensed it was his destiny.
As the prize presentation unfolded, Hendry stood by our Eurosport commentary box watching on. His record of seven world titles was set in 1999. That year he beat O’Sullivan in the semi-finals at a time when Ronnie was a somewhat troubled young man.
Back then, it seemed impossible for anyone to threaten Hendry’s title tally, or indeed any of his records. With great persistence, O’Sullivan has come for them. He says they are just numbers but there will surely be a day when he looks back on it all with genuine pride.
His great friend and Eurosport colleague Jimmy White firmly believes O’Sullivan can go on to win as many as 10 world titles. Why not? His game is unlikely to dramatically decline overnight. He keeps himself fit and has the natural talent to underpin the hard work he puts in.
Yet Hendry was never quite the same after his seventh victory. The intensity went and the titles dried up. The mental demands of top-level snooker cannot be underestimated and how many more times O’Sullivan can stand at the bottom of the mountain gazing up at the climb ahead remains to be seen.
But all that can wait for another day. For now, the glory once more belongs to Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Snooker’s greatest showman has done it again.
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