As Ronnie O’Sullivan wins the 2020 snooker World Championships, Alex Johnson salutes his brilliance
In most sports there is some debate about the greatest ever player. Maradona or Messi? Botham or Bradman? Kasparov or Capablanca? In snooker, there’s no discussion. It’s Ronnie.
It feels wrong to measure greatness using statistics, but simply on this basis alone there would be a very strong argument in favour of the Rocket (middle name Antonio, fact fans): six World Championship wins and holder of the most ranking titles (including a record seven Masters and a record seven UK championships wins). He is the only player to have made 1,000 century breaks and has recorded the most 147 maximums (15). He was first ranked number 1 in 2002.
That’s astonishing longevity. And if there’s any doubt, Stephen Hendry – who some might argue outranks Ronnie – has publicly stated that: “O’Sullivan is the best player in the world by a country mile.”
The numbers are only half the reason why he is so fêted. For a man who has, incredibly, never even made the shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the 44-year-old brings a jangle of exhilaration to the sport, both on and off the baize. He’s not alone in this. Alex Higgins (career centuries: 86) was often referred to as the “people’s champion” and if Jimmy White (six times a World Championship final loser) ever makes it through the qualifying stages to the World Championship finals, the audience roar and standing ovation on his first entrance will be a scene to behold.
Yet Ronnie is something else, a spectacle in a sport which is not spectacular. Here’s a man who has knocked in the fastest competitive maximum break at a barely believable five minutes and eight seconds. But here’s also a man who played in his socks during the first round of the 2015 world championships because his shoes were annoying him, until tournament director Mike Ganley told him that playing shoeless breached the dress code and lent him a pair of his own. And here’s a man who is so tired of dull interview questions that he sometimes goes gently rogue and answers them in an Australian accent (he’s from Dudley), or like a robot.
Sometimes the larkiness goes too far. Ronnie is a controversial character. He’s been warned and punished numerous times for his actions including a fine for £20,000 for headbutting an official (Mike Ganley in fact, back when he was a press officer) at the 1996 world championships. On the table, he’s been accused of disrespecting fellow professional Alain Robidoux by playing left-handed, got into some argy-bargy with long-time opponent Ali Carter – the nearest snooker has come to a mild in-match scuffle – and has often refused to complete maximum breaks on the basis that the prize money for doing so is insufficient. This kind of petulance makes him the most Marmitey of players on the tour and indeed he does not socialise with the others away from the table.
In terms of his love life, he’s not a wild boy – he has had three serious relationships (and three children, one of whom is now a mum, so Ronnie is a grandpa) and has been with actress Laila Rouass (Footballers’ Wives, Holby City, fourth on Strictly) for a while now. They met when he was selling his house and she went round to take a look – she had no idea who he was at the time, but got on very well with his dad (also Ronnie). When she got a call a few days later from the estate agent saying Ronnie wondered if she’d like to go for dinner, she initially thought he meant Ronnie senior…
If Ronnie has been key to the rise and rise of snooker’s popularity, how important is snooker to him? It’s certainly not been a straightforward relationship. He has regularly threatened to retire and recently floated the idea of a breakaway snooker tour. After he won the 2012 World Championships, he took an extended break from the game and spent most of the following year working as a labourer on a pig farm in Epping. There’s certainly more to him than the average player. He has a genuine interest in Islam (though 2003 media stories that he’d converted are groundless) and Buddhism. He’s an extremely good runner. He’s a keen cook and recently brought out his own cookbook with his nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, Top of Your Game: 70 Recipes to Help You Eat For Success.
He is, to put it mildly, a complex character. He’s suffered from depression, had issues with alcohol, his father has served a long sentence for murder and his mother a short one for tax evasion. Refreshingly for a professional sportsman, he’s been honest about all his challenges and taken action when needed, working with sports psychiatrist Steve Peters to particularly successful effect. That public forthrightness about life can be seen most days on Twitter, where he makes no effort to hide that he is politically to the left and is also happy to tweet out messages such as “I’d rather sleep in a pig sty then have to go and play in the Gibraltar Open” or “Why don’t women snooker referees get to ref the big finals in snooker? They are very good refs, and should be given more major finals.”
Indeed, his Twitter biog reads: “I have a degree in snooker and I am a genius.” It’s impossible to disagree.
Alex Johnson writes the snooker column in the Idler magazine. This piece first appeared in Idler 67, July/Aug 2019