Ladies and gentlemen, the all-time best on baize, the fastest on felt, the Essex Exocet, the cue king… Ronnie, “The Rocket,” O’Sullivan!
Watching Ronnie at his best, sober TV commentators can often be heard to purr, “snooker of the gods.” It is, I suggest, one of the most extraordinary observations that all of sport has to offer. The very idea of it! Zeus and company peeking down from Mount Olympus, not to watch some elemental battle between two boxers, say, or a gut-busting, sinew-straining sprint… but two men in waistcoats trying to get good position on the black. It ought to be hyperbole at its emptiest, a clear sign that for far too long Clive Everton and fresh air haven’t really mixed.
But, damn it, for O’Sullivan at his own elevated peak, it’s absolutely bang on the money. Yes, he might just be knocking about a cue-ball, and, yes, he might very well be sharing the stage with a Nigel Bond or an Alan McManus or a Graeme Dott – but such trifling things matter not a jot. As O’Sullivan’s trademark nickname usefully suggests, he rises above the hushed confines of his game with propellant ease. When fellow players refer to him as “a genius,” they’re right.
O’Sullivan can make a very difficult endeavor look very easy. And, what’s more, he plays fast, as if ever doing otherwise would somehow turn reckless talent into a chore. Perhaps for the same reason, he often plays left-handed, as well; his ambidextrous ability without any equal I can think of from one sport to the next. It’s never showing off, though. It’s something else altogether: the Rocket’s talent isn’t ‘merely’ special, it’s endlessly fascinating too – on account of his never knowing quite what to make of it. You sense it’s not just alien to us, but to him.
The background details of his life start to fill in some of the blanks. His dad’s spent the last 18 years in prison for murdering someone with a knife. He’s battled with depression, booze and drugs. He’s taken an interest in Buddhism, and Islam also. He runs six miles every day. In press conferences, he talks openly about a life of happy highs and horrible lows. He’ll win the World Championship and claim moments after he was ‘playing rubbish.’ He loves snooker. He hates snooker. It’s all he’s ever known. He never wants to play again.
Ronnie-watching, there’s never a dull moment. You don’t know what he’ll do next, because half the time he doesn’t either. A 147 in 5 minutes and 20 seconds: utterly absurd. Another day, instead of watching his opponent play, he sits with a wet towel over his head. The next, he just gives up and walks out, mid-way through a UK Championship quarter-final (to Stephen Hendry: “had enough of it, mate”). The next again, he’ll look for all the world like a player impossible to beat. He is sport’s best combination of perfection and it’s opposite. He’s the Rocket, and we’ll miss him when he’s gone.