Far from the madding crowd, something stirs. Ronnie O’Sullivan’s bid to return to the summit of snooker has gone as smoothly as his velvety cue action, the one he has described as the “world’s worst”. O’Sullivan, an avid jogger, is suddenly well and truly in the running at the Crucible Theatre because his campaign is cushioned by as little surround sound as heading for a morning run in Epping Forest.
While O’Sullivan revels in publicity, he also likes to pick and choose his moments when he raises his cue above the parapet.
He continues to make some outlandish – and some will suggest derogatory comments about the sport - that made him a multi-millionaire over the past 28 years, but he is cut off from reality and social media when he gets down to the proper business of sinking balls.
Which is proving to be no bad thing.
For a crowd favourite, having no crowd could prove pivotal to his prospects of lifting the trophy when the sun goes down on this UK summer of snooker on Sunday evening.
He also prefers it that way in avoiding having to cope with the low-level fame which snooker celebrity brings especially when he tries to make his way between his lodgings in Sheffield and the Crucible Theatre which tends to become a sideshow O’Sullivan does not enjoy. For him, Tudor Square in the city brings as much attention as the Tudors in the hothouse of confronting your potting public.
“That’s why I don’t like this tournament. It’s such a headache getting in and out the venue. I virtually spend all my time running away from people," said O'Sullivan, champion in 2001, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2013.
World number 18 Ali Carter, his old Essex nemesis from two world finals, got a mention in the aftermath of his 13-10 win over Mark Williams in the quarter-finals when O’Sullivan suggested he would have toiled against any players in the rankings from “Ali Carter and above” because he feels he has “had no consistency for six or seven years” at the World Championship.
'The Captain' surprisingly failed to qualify for the sport’s blue-chip event, but made perhaps the most pertinent comment when analysing his old foe’s prospects of a sixth world title, seven years after his fifth triumph.
"For me, this no-crowd scenario favours the rocket big time," said Carter on Twitter. "I think he wins it this year - and will be his last. Respectfully the no-crowd is a massive leveller in my honest opinion."
Ronnie O'Sullivan finishes off Mark Williams on re-spotted black
The lack of fans due to the health pandemic has allowed O'Sullivan to focus on the crisp sound of a well-struck black. The peripheral noise has been muted apart from some geezer backstage pressing a button of canned applause whenever a decent shot is played, a century is compiled or a frame is won.
Marc Jacobs rather than Mark Selby could not have done a better job in designing surroundings fashionable enough for such considerable whims and mood swings. Much of the meaningless fodder he comes out with after matches – he compared himself to the 'fat' Diego Maradona on Tuesday – is merely a repetitive easing of the valve on his own hopes and fears that distracts the tabloids from the scent of true pressure.
O’Sullivan faces Selby, the ultimate challenge for any snooker professional at the Crucible, but he is better placed to meet it without 900 people shouting ‘C’mon Ronnie’ every time his opponent misses a ball.
That brings its own level of expectation, a level of strain that Jimmy 'Whirlwind' White was unable to cope with when he came up agonisingly short six times in finals in the 1980s and 1990s.
O'Sullivan's mate Damien Hirst could use a Crucible Theatre minus fans as an example of contemporary art playing in what the Chigwell distance runner describes as "a morgue". Yet it has been full of life for O'Sullivan, who has made nine centuries among 31 half-centuries in ploughing a potting furrow to the last four.
“All you want to do is come and play snooker," said O'Sullivan. "You are protected a bit. It’s really tough, but with the Covid situation it’s allowed people to get on with their job and not have to play hide and seek.”
Ronnie O'Sullivan: Mark Selby is a certainty, I've got no game!
In contrast, the former world champion and undisputed world number one Judd Trump seemed to see the lifeblood disappear from his game without the theatre of being the man in the arena as he succumbed 13-9 to Kyren Wilson in the quarter-finals. It is easy to go flat without fans, but for O’Sullivan it is comparable to a meditative experience as he stalks the table with only a referee and a couple of TV cameramen for company.
If O’Sullivan can manage to outwit Selby over the elongated distance of 33 frames then he can suddenly dream about the possibilities.
Despite brushing aside Thepchaiya Un-Nooh 10-1 and enjoying 13-10 wins over Ding Junhui and Williams, we are only at the halfway point of the potting jamboree. 36 frames have been won so far, another 35 are required for all the other aspirants in the last four.
O'Sullivan was 10-5 clear of Selby in the 2014 final, but succumbed to his fellow Englishman's superior strategy in losing 18-14. He has not been back to the semi-finals since the gruelling nature of that defeat.
If you consider the UK and Masters to be part of a Triple Crown, which most purists will argue against simply because it lacks credibility, the World Championship is at the apex of the pack. It defines the sport as the game's only credible major. If not, O'Sullivan would have won more than five with his natural ability, but awards are not handed out for aesthetics.
Selby is likely to provide a sterner test of concentration, consistency and ultimately his craving. He is no slouch in scoring either with five tons made in 25 plus 50s runs at the event that has saw him eclipse Jordan Brown (10-6), Noppon Saengkham (13-12) and most impressively Neil Robertson (13-7).
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If O’Sullivan really wants it, it is there for him. The scoring is certainly in place, but is he willing to scrap it out at certain junctures over such a distance?
One-visit snooker fails to realise that more frames need to be won over in more than one visit. Selby, champion in 2014, 2016 and 2017, is happy to pay more visits to a snooker table during a match than Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel if he achieves the desired hue.
It is a mindset that O’Sullivan ultimately must adapt to over three days of Test match snooker as he tries to remove the final significant stumbling block before the final. It remains the acid test above anything else in the unrelenting world of cue sports.