Snooker’s latest late night drama did not let us down as Fan Zhengyi, a completely unheralded 21-year-old from Harbin in North Eastern China, edged out Ronnie O’Sullivan 10-9 to win the European Masters in Milton Keynes on Sunday.
Fan was 750-1 for the title at the start of the tournament. He was also the worthy winner. He played the better snooker throughout the final. His potting was fearless and he did not falter in the decider, making a 92 break to secure the title.
It was all the more special because of who he beat. O’Sullivan is a hero to a generation of players who have come along in his wake. To the rest of us, he represents something special: an unchanging pleasure amid the turmoil of real life.
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The wider world offers plenty of reasons not to be cheerful: climate change, the deep polarisation of our society, a pandemic and now, horrifically, a war in Europe.
Watching the news channels last Thursday morning while doom-scrolling social media for the latest updates from Ukraine was a depressing experience.
A few hours later, we were watching Ronnie play snooker. It was a reminder of what a wonderful sight that is. He beat Ashley Hugill 5-2. It wasn’t his best ever performance, not even close, but he had a couple of centuries and cued nicely throughout. And we thoroughly enjoyed the whole show. It was like an oasis of sanity in a world apparently gone mad.
We come to sport for different reasons but more often than not it functions as a distraction from the daily grind of life. The much-missed Sunday Times journalist Hugh McIlvanney once wrote that “of all the things that don’t matter, sport matters the most". At times of crisis a snooker tournament may seem a trivial sideshow, but these are precisely the moments when we need joy more than ever.
And watching O’Sullivan play snooker remains an immensely joyful experience. There is an artistry to the way he plays, a panache. You don’t see the working out. It appears to be instinctive.
So much of this is down to his own hard work. He clearly has a natural aptitude but has put countless hours into refining his craft. He had advantages too. When his father realised his talent he installed a full-sized table at their home and arranged for leading amateurs and some professionals to come and play him. O’Sullivan has since compared himself to a royal prince being groomed for the throne.
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But he was special, that was obvious. By the age of 12 he was regularly beating adults. He turned professional at 16 and hit the ground running, winning 74 of 76 matches played in the summer qualifying school in Blackpool.
The following year, just short of turning 18, he won the UK Championship, one of snooker’s crown jewels, to announce himself in the public mind. Almost 30 years on, despite many off-table challenges, he is still there.
He now holds every record that counts except one. Stephen Hendry still has one more world title. O’Sullivan is 46 but not spent yet. This final mountain is still climbable.
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But his stats, though impressive, don’t come close to explaining the fascination with O’Sullivan. In a sport in which many champions have been almost robotically self-controlled, he is irrepressibly human. His qualities and his frailties co-exist for all to see. He has no filter, for good and bad. His many fans project on to him their own neuroses. He gives people hope: you can be unconventional in this world and still be a success.
O’Sullivan has often given the impression that he is embarrassed by praise, as if there is a deep-seated reason he feels he is unworthy of it. He has frequently talked down his own performances, undercutting the enjoyment many have taken in them.
Perhaps he really doesn’t know how good he is. It could be that Mozart didn’t understand why any old member of the public couldn’t knock out a symphony. Geniuses rarely see themselves as others do. They are just doing the thing they are brilliant at. They don’t question where it comes from.
The European Masters struggled to establish much of a profile, shoved as it was into Milton Keynes because Covid regulations stopped it going ahead in Germany. After early shocks, the promotion of the event quickly revolved entirely around O’Sullivan’s presence.
Some players are resentful of this as they feel their achievements and performances are overlooked. They may have a point, but they should also get real. So much of the interest in snooker over the last three decades has been generated by O’Sullivan. He is the sport’s number one box office attraction and a player whose appeal extends beyond snooker itself.
Fan said last night it was a dream just to play him. Victoria Shi, who manages the new champion as well as Zhao Xintong and Yan Bingtao, spoke of O’Sullivan’s generosity towards the young Chinese contingent.
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His own relationship with a game which has made him a millionaire is notoriously complex. He first threatened to retire when he was 18. No player has spent as much time openly pondering their future, but his future has ultimately always involved playing snooker.
He must love the game itself. He would not still be putting himself through practising and the slog of the circuit if he didn’t. But he doesn’t always love the sport – the commitments and sacrifices which go with being a professional and all the people who want a piece of his time.
For years he has had to listen to the endless opinions others have of him: supporters gushing and critics tut-tutting. Nothing is ever middle of the road with him. He has been celebrated and castigated in equal measure.
There have been times when O’Sullivan has behaved badly and said daft things. But haven’t we all? The difference is that for most of us the media are not hanging on our every word and then reporting it as great truth, rather than the random thoughts on our mind that day.
Whenever O’Sullivan has transgressed, he has been swiftly forgiven. He is exceptionally warm-hearted underneath it all. Like a partner or parent who has done or said something maddening, you remember after a few hours of being annoyed why you loved them in the first place.
Simply, it is the way that he plays. If you love snooker, you can’t fail to be enthralled by his mastery of the cue ball when he is on song. There is a curious beauty to how he sets about a break. There has never been anything quite like it.
The joy that he still provides is needed more than ever. It can’t change the world but it can make our own world that little bit happier. And more than any trophy he has won, that is O’Sullivan’s invaluable contribution to snooker.
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