IF I WASN’T SUCH AN ESSEX LAD I THINK YORKSHIRE WOULD BE A GREAT PLACE FOR ME – THERE’S SO MANY PLACES OUTDOORS TO EXPLORE AND FEEL ALIVE
If Rocket Ronnie was a musician he’d probably be David Bowie.
Extolling all the charisma and extroverted brashness of a man fully aware of his powers, the snooker god has flitted between fashions, trends and eras almost seamlessly.
Like a Seve, Cruyff or Ali, Ronnie O’Sullivan is one of those rare breeds who combines showmanship with a natural born brilliance.
But as with all sporting gods, their achievements come at a price and lurking beneath the surface there is often a vulnerability to match their genius.
O’Sullivan is no exception and in a rare interview with beyond he talks about the demons he has overcome and why he’s often contemplated walking away from the sport he has dominated for so long. “It’s a tough sport to stay excited about,” he says, as I sit down for a chat with the five-times Crucible champion
“I make no secret of the fact it does my head in, as does some of the stuff that goes on around it. “It’s not like I need to carry on doing this, and many times I wish I’d walked away, but I keep coming back for more.
That’s just who I am, I guess.”
The fact is snooker needs Ronnie O’Sullivan much more than Ronnie O’Sullivan needs snooker and he knows it. Even at the age of 41, the Essex man remains the rebel, and has continually tested the patience of stuffy custodians who rigidly conform to the traditions of the game.
Yet deep down the fragility of O’Sullivan has been laid out for all to see. Not least, by the man himself. “I spent many years losing myself and losing my mind because I was always striving for absolute perfection, and it has taken me a long to come to realise that there is no such thing as that,” he admits.
“These days, and with the help of psychiatrist Steve Peters, who has really saved me and my career I am much better at rationalising situations and dealing with the pressure of big tournaments.
A bad day is certainly what O’Sullivan had when Yao Bingtao took him to the cleaners at the start of November, dishing out a
-1 defeat at the International Championships in Daqing, China.
The homegrown victor, just 17, took apart another former world champion, John Higgins, before succumbing to Mark Allen in the semi-finals.
“There will always be someone on your coattails in this sport,” concedes O’Sullivan, philosophically. “But I think it’s great when the next generation of player comes through. There are a few of us older guys on the circuit and it’s just like when I came into the sport with the likes of Terry Griffiths, Doug Mountjoy, Alex Higgins and Willie Thorne still doing their thing.
“Now there is a group of young guys looking to make a name for themselves with a victory over an established player, and that’s great.”
Having made his professional breakthrough in 1992, Ronnie’s first major victory came at the 1993 UK Championship when he defeated Stephen Hendry 10-6 in the final at the Barbican, in York. “That’s 25 years ago now,” he reminisces, “and it seems like it too! But I do count myself very lucky for having stuck around as long as I have.
The game might be the same – you are largely playing against yourself in each match, not the opponent – every tournament is different, and each win feels special… you never lose that.”
The British Open title followed in 1994, and while other national tournaments went the way of the Rocket, it wasn’t until 2001 that he finally cracked the big one, the World Snooker Championship title at the Crucible.
He said: “The first win there is always the most special, and I had a titanic battle against John Higgins, finally winning 18 14.
Each time I go back to Sheffield now it feels like I’m returning home, and I’ve heard other champions say the same thing. “The other thing about going to Yorkshire is the people,” he adds. “I really believe they are unique – honest, confident and with a great sense of humour.
If I wasn’t such an Essex lad I think Yorkshire would be a great place for me – there’s so much space there too; so many places outdoors to explore and feel alive.”
Looking forward, and Ronnie certainly appears to have put his demons behind him. “I’ve never hidden behind mental health – it’s not like I’ve wanted to come out and be an ambassador for it, I’ve just not been very good at hiding it!” he laughs. “But if the result of that is me being able to help others overcome their problems, or give them a bit of encouragement in realising this sort of stuff can happen to anyone, then that’s great.
“I certainly know I am the better for tackling these issues head-on and finding a way to overcome them. I’ve got a family and I want to dedicate my time to my son, being healthy in the process.”
So, are we likely to see a little Rocket Junior hitting the baize and following in his father’s footsteps? “No!” Ronnie replies, almost before the question is finished.
“I’d much rather he was outdoors doing stuff that’s active and healthy. “Snooker is a great sport at the top, but its heyday isn’t now and the investment you need to put in is brutal at times.
I want him to have a proper life and be successful at something else.” As for his own future, Ronnie says he’ll be about for a few more years to come or “at least until the age of 50” before hanging up his cue.
He is already building a life away from the table and has just penned a second spy novel, Double Kiss, a ‘win or die’ thriller which is a perfectly poised sequel to Framed, his first book based on the shady gangster backdrop of his upbringing.
“It’s been a lot of fun writing the book and I’ve enjoyed throwing myself back into this other world,” he admits. “Writing is a great diversion for me away from the stress of tournaments, and I think that therapy has put me in a good place creatively, it’s definitely something I will carry on with.
Double Kiss by Ronnie O’Sullivan is out now, published by Pan Macmillan (RRP £18.99)