It was a year ago that Ronnie O’Sullivan claimed he did not participate at the impending Gibraltar Open because he "would rather sleep in a pig sty". His critics might suggest he has already made a pig’s ear of this season with only the World Championship next month offering any form of redemption in what is left of a fairly underwhelming campaign for snooker's Rocket Man.
O’Sullivan’s inability to win a ranking tournament, his commitment to avoid any events he does not fancy and a few indifferent results has left him snookered in the death throes of this season. He even participated in the lottery of the Snooker Shoot Out last month in his quest to boost his season, but defeat to world number 110 Billy Joe Castle in the second round has left the five-times world champion on the outside looking in.
Billy Joe Castle ousts Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Shoot Out
Outside of the top 16 in the one-year ranking list, he did not qualify to defend his Players Championship won by Judd Trump on Sunday and the knock-on effect sees him miss the defence of the Tour Championship (March 17-22), involving the top eight in the world after the Gibraltar Open (March 11-15), an event O’Sullivan views about as dimly as prize money for a 147.
With the China Open cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis, O’Sullivan has time to play a few exhibitions, he is in Derry this week, and ready himself for his latest trip to the World Championship (April 18-May 4). When he washes up in Sheffield this year, he will have last played a competitive match against Castle on February 22.
Will it hamper his bid to claim a sixth world title seven years after winning a fifth title at the bow-tied torture chamber? Unlikely. He has previous with this narrative.
He infamously took a season off after lifting the world title in 2012, he worked in a pig sty believe it or not, before successfully defending the old pot a year later. He has not been back to the final since losing 18-14 to Mark Selby in 2014, but still has the potency to go deep into the tournament this time despite his apparent travails.
Overcoming firebrands like the outstanding world champion and world number one Judd Trump, who has already claimed five ranking titles in a fabulous coming-of-age campaign, and Neil Robertson would be his greatest achievement in the sport. Yet even at 44, it would be dangerous to describe O'Sullivan as an also-ran at a venue where curious happenings can develop over an elongated 17 days.
In his favour, he should be a fresh beast and perhaps a dangerous animal in Sheffield. He will not head there burdened by high levels of expectancy.
A year ago, he travelled to Sheffield in prime form having lifted three ranking events including the UK title, and was promptly bounced out 10-8 by then amateur James Cahill in arguably the greatest shock in the event’s history. Amid getting a buzz cut during the contest, he cut a fatigued figure at the end, left frazzled by a touch of the cold and a miserable level of green baize malpractice.
Cahill clears up and bangs table in delight after beating O'Sullivan
Trump plays the game on a different planet these days, but O’Sullivan on his day remains firmly in his orbit.
He lifted the elite invitational Shanghai Masters with a 11-9 win over Shaun Murphy in September, and narrowly lost the Northern Ireland Open final 9-7 to Trump.
O'Sullivan lifts Shanghai title for third successive year
It would be a typical denouement to such a season if O’Sullivan emerges victorious clasping the old pot. Whatever else is made of O'Sullivan's season, it is not a fanciful nor a romantic notion from a 28-year career based on high levels of unpredictability.