Best of 2020: How below-par Rocket Ronnie O'Sullivan won sixth world title in second gear
Ronnie O’Sullivan’s World Championship victory was a triumph for perseverance over panache as he astonishingly conquered the Crucible playing within himself, writes Desmond Kane. This article was first published in August after Ronnie O'Sullivan won a sixth world crown, while the Rocket made his first appearance at BBC Sports Personality of the Year on Sunday.
Jack Nicklaus and Ronnie O'Sullivan still on top in their 40s.
Better late than never. With Ronnie O’Sullivan, never say never again.
At the age of 44, O’Sullivan became snooker’s oldest world champion since fellow six-times winner Ray Reardon triumphed at the age of 45 and 203 days with a 25-18 win over Perry Mans in 1978, the second year that the game's grandest event was staged at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
O’Sullivan’s 18-8 landslide victory against Kyren Wilson on Sunday evening in the delayed 44th Crucible final proved to be a microcosm of his performance throughout the tournament: flashes of trademark fluent genius interspersed with uncharacteristically longer periods of unapologetic, crafty, clever and opportunistic battle-hardened matchplay snooker.
It was calculated and sometimes chaotic, but provided him with a tournament-winning ticket back to Essex for the first time in seven years. Which is what the purpose of putting yourself through this ordeal is all about.
While Judd Trump sizzled 14 months ago at the same venue, laying waste to the table in a manner rarely witnessed before on live television in his filleting of John Higgins, O’Sullivan seemed to visibly struggle with his technique yet still conjured up the same winning margin as the world number one. Go figure.
Ronnie O’Sullivan | Snooker | ESP Player Feature
Image credit: Eurosport
In a sport of desperately thin margins, O’Sullivan’s key to victory and a £500,000 first prize was the maturity and wisdom to accept that you do not need to be at your brilliant best all the time. Just be better than the other guy.
In the final analysis, it was more than enough to get him over the line against one of the alleged pretenders to his throne. For 28-year-old Wilson, a former Masters finalist who shed tears after his 17-16 win over Anthony McGill in the semi-finals, it was a chastening lesson in the levels required to reach green baize Babylon. Practice will only carry you so far if inspiration and the inability to seize the day constantly eludes you.
He missed the key final red ball on Saturday evening when O’Sullivan looked spent – and according to six-times champion Steve Davis “deteriorating” – that proved the difference between trailing 10-7 and 9-8 overnight. If that had gone in, the narrative would have altered considerably on Sunday afternoon having reduced the deficit from 8-2 to 9-7 without ever excelling. He was to win only one more frame in the match.
Best of 2020: Watch moment Ronnie O'Sullivan clinches sixth World Snooker Championship title
For the snooker fraternity, it is a sobering reality that O’Sullivan can still lift the sport’s greatest tournament in the latter stages of his career without bringing his A game to the party.
As he himself admitted, by his own pristine standards – and certainly compared to his other five victories in 2001, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2013 – this was not vintage O’Sullivan, even if his own level remains vaunted.
In a week in which controversy has shrouded exam marks in the UK, nothing matters other than passing the sternest of green baize potting papers in coping with snooker cloths in a damp hot summer. The final was a damp squib, in reality a brutal mismatch of class, concentration and consistency.
John Higgins reached the last world final with his B game, three-times champion Mark Selby carried off at least one of his three world titles with his B game, but O’Sullivan won with a C.
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"ROS winning the World with his "C" game, far far from his best these two weeks, quite scary when you think about it!," said three-times Crucible semi-finalist Marco Fu on social media.
ROS remains one of professional sport’s great wonders of the world. "Talent wise he is the most gifted sportsman in the world in my opinion," said the 1994 Masters winner Alan McManus.
O'Sullivan constantly bemoaned his lack of a cue action during the tournament, suggesting his long game had gone to pot while comparing his plight to trying to win golf’s US Open without a driver.
“I don’t believe you can win it being good or rubbish, and I’ve been good or rubbish,” he said after his 13-10 win over Mark Williams in the quarter-finals from 6-2 down. “I just need to be steady. Otherwise it’s like trying to win the US Open with a five-iron in my bag.”
On Sunday night coming down the home stretch, it was perhaps comparable to Jack Nicklaus at the age of 46 claiming his sixth and final Green Jacket at the US Masters in 1986 – six years after his 17th major had been holed out at the 1980 US PGA Championship.
"I'm not going to quit, guys,'' said Nicklaus back then. "Maybe I should. Maybe I should say goodbye. Maybe that'd be the smart thing to do. But I'm not that smart.''
Like the Golden Bear, many commentators doubted whether O’Sullivan still had the golden key. Well now we have the answer from a professional circuit still fighting out of the UK. He joins Davis and Reardon as a six-times world champion. He stands alone as the game’s most prolific ranking event winner with 37 hoisted above his head over his gilded 28-year career.
Ronnie O'Sullivan on 'snooker god moment' against Mark Selby after sixth World Championship title
Forty seems to be the new 30 in snooker parlance. O’Sullivan is still Jack the Lad, and a jack of all trades when he needs to be. He has an array of tools necessary to get the job done, ranging from his ambidextrous skills that allows him to dispense with a fair percentage of rest shots on either flank and a scoring game that provides the main stanchion of his ability to punish errors with as much menace as Bobby Fischer brandishing two bishops in chess.
O’Sullivan has played better and lost at this venue since his fifth world title in 2013, especially when you recall his 13-12 defeat in the last 16 to Barry Hawkins in 2016 when he made 12 frame-winning breaks, four over 100 and still went down. An avid jogger, he made his own running this time.
The final three frames of his 17-16 win over Mark Selby in the semi-final was the stuff of folklore after he threw his cue at a few spectacular do-or-die long efforts that hit the back of the pocket like grapeshot, totting up 276 unanswered points in somehow landing the killer blows having toiled to keep pace with his nemesis. It deserved a crowd in this surreal year of the pandemic.
O’Sullivan contributed 12 centuries to the tournament’s 79, more than any other player, with his highest run of 138 coming in the 31st frame of his win over Selby. When the pressure was at its most intense, his technique stood up to the test.
O’Sullivan was more in tune with the golden oldies on Sunday afternoon as Disco Inferno weirdly began to blast out of the speakers after the first frame of the day at the Crucible like it was a boxing match between rounds. As the mood music altered, Wilson was left with a mournful dirge between his ears amid the mental malaise. O'Sullivan knew he was home and hosed holding a 17-8 lead after the third session with several plus 50 runs before finalising the business at hand with a 96 break in the 26th frame.
Can he reach Stephen Hendry’s modern haul of seven lifted at the Crucible between 1990 and 1999? It is a record he would at least like to level before sinking his final black. We live in uncertain times and nobody knows what condition society, snooker or the rest of professional sport will be in when the 45th staging of the event reverts back to its normal dates of April and May in the calendar in 2021.
Ali Carter, twice a losing finalist to O’Sullivan in 2008 and 2012, had called it right by predicting O’Sullivan would become champion without the 'Come on Ronnie' brigade adding to the sweat on his brow.
O’Sullivan has admitted he benefited greatly in playing the tournament behind closed doors for a fortnight before around 300 fans were allowed in for the final two days at the venue.
“I get a lot of support, a lot of players do, but they can get a bit rowdy. I love my fans, I love all fans, I love Mark Selby fans, any snooker fan, because they’re a fan of snooker,” he said.
“But when I’m out there playing and I’ve got all these people going, “come on Ronnie!” it scares me a bit because there’s so much passion in their voice, it’s like life and death to them.
“This is meant to be more of a nice gentleman’s sort of sport and up until there was no crowd, I felt pressure because I want to do well, but when you throw that into the frying pan, it takes the fun out of it for me.”
O’Sullivan is a character who is run by mood swings which is why predicting what happens next is a futile business. Despite his denial of attention seeking, he loves a headline more than Rupert Murdoch and has previously taken a year off between his fourth and fifth world title successes. He is as changeable as his shot selection.
How he is feeling at that time will have a massive bearing on any notions of a seventh victory. The talent has always been there, but this latest success suggests the temperament can still be put to good use when required.
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For a player held up as the GOAT, he would dearly love to level Hendry, the real total whenever you discuss snooker majors, but doing it in front of a packed Crucible will prove more stressful. Not thinking, but breathing in the moment has served him as well as watching old episodes of Only Fools and Horses.
In discussing foolhardy calls, it will also be interesting to see if O’Sullivan is finally deemed worthy of a place on the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist this time after the BBC’s years of refusal for a sport they continue to broadcast. It is a hoary old tale that one.
There is not much else he can do in the game to earn recognition other than to win the trophy blindfolded. Which may not be beyond him.