There can be few sportsmen who, in their pursuit of excellence, stare as deeply into the abyss as Ronnie O’Sullivan. His fight is as much with himself as with his opponent. His mental demons are a constant companion. He could not face the defence of his Champion of Champions crown in Bolton last week and withdrew “drained and stressed”.
Last month he pulled out of the Northern Ireland Open in Belfast because of “medical reasons”. That he is still standing – and still winning the biggest events – makes him one of the great champions. Snooker is not sprinting. Or boxing. Or rugby. Its physical demands do not extend much before a few hours on your feet in shiny shoes.
But mentally there are few pursuits as wearing. There is a lot of time to think when your opponent is amongst the balls. And thinking is not good for O’Sullivan as a new film, released this week, graphically illustrates. ‘Ronnie O’Sullivan: The Edge of Everything’ is, as you might imagine from the subject under the arc light, utterly compelling. Even if you can’t stand snooker, you should see this.
It is a journey into the soul of a tortured genius which lays bare just what it takes – and what it takes out of him – for O’Sullivan to do what he does on the table. It is a study in mental trauma as much as sporting exceptionalism. At one point during the film’s deep dive into last year’s world championship final, TV commentator Dennis Taylor notes how cool O’Sullivan appears at the table. If he had seen the behind-the-scenes footage of O’Sullivan chain-smoking out of his dressing room window during the interval while he unburdens the fear which is gripping him to his psychiatrist, he might have reconsidered.
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O’Sullivan talks about playing for enjoyment but those words jar against the pained figure going through agonies at The Crucible. To witness, as the viewer does vividly, the anguish and torment you wonder whether it is all worth it. O’Sullivan does too. He thinks aloud in the film over how much easier it would be to spare himself the excavation of his soul. There has never been a more gifted snooker player. As Stephen Hendry recounts ruefully in the film, The Rocket once beat him playing 90 per cent of their match left-handed.
His 147 at the 1997 world championships remains one of the most extraordinary five minutes and 20 seconds of sport you are ever likely to see. But it takes more than just talent to have maintained the standards he has for so long. For all the weeks when it is all too much and the periodic threats to walk away from the game completely, at 47, he is still able to deliver snooker no other player can match. There is a perfectionist’s drive deep inside him. To achieve what he has, given his back story, seems incredible.
His porn-pedalling father’s imprisonment for murder triggered well-chronicled issues with drink, drugs and depression. Ronnie O’Sullivan Snr features in the documentary. He reveals that, as he was being sent down, his departing words were: ‘tell my boy to win”. It is as if those words, for good and ill, have been seared into O’Sullivan’s subconscious.
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At one point O’Sullivan ponders the parallels with Tiger Woods and Serena Williams – two other serial winners whose careers were shaped by powerful fathers who drove them hard early in their lives. It was the same for him only with a terrible teenage twist. As a boy, O’Sullivan idolised his domineering, larger-than-life dad. He would do anything to make him proud. That carried on into adult life. When his father was in prison, O’Sullivan would visit with the trophies that he had won.
A parent himself now, there is still that desire to please Ronnie Snr. The unspoken sub-text of the documentary is that he wants that record-breaking eighth world title for his dad – now a free man – as much as for himself.
That is a complicated and at times unhealthy place to be for O’Sullivan but in the same breath it helps to supply the fuel which keeps him going. He has already won more ranking titles than any other player in history. He needs one more world title to separate himself from Hendry. He might never get there but one of the most fascinating sportsmen of the era will empty himself trying.
Good week – Virat Kohli
Any week you eclipse a Sachin Tendulkar record has to be a memorable one and the 50th one-day century for India’s kingpin which took his side into the World Cup final was beautifully timed. The fact that the Little Master was there to see it was the syrup on the gulab jamun.
Even though Kohli still trails Tendulkar by almost 5,000 runs in the format, he has a higher average and a better strike rate. The greatest one-day batter in history? That is a debate. To have watched Tendulkar in the flesh was to witness cricket on an elevated plain. What is inarguable is that Kohli, having cleared 700 runs and averaged more than a hundred, has been the batter of this World Cup. Now all he has to do is to finish the job and win the final for India against Australia.
Bad week – Mikel Arteta
The Arsenal manager might have thought he had got away with his epic ref rant given the length of time it took the FA to collar him. Alas not. The disrepute charge, brought 12 days after Arteta went nuclear at St James’ Park, means he will face a hearing after all.
He has until Tuesday to give the FA his observations. If he is found guilty his punishment should be to go on a refereeing course and find out, first hand, how difficult the job is. The same should apply to every other manager who fires off at the officials when a result does not go his way this season.
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