There is more theatre about Rocket Ronnie than the Crucible, more originality than Bill Bailey tangoing to Metallica anthem Enter Sandman on Strictly Come Dancing and more balls than Banksy’s latest spot of public paintwork. A genius? Definitely maybe.
What does bestowing such an accolade constitute in the cut-throat environs of professional sport? Does seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton possess it in Formula One with the best car? Or does unbeaten world heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury land it with the best reach? There is no doubting the calculating class of such celebrated figures, but genius conjures up different images as Sports Personality of the Year from merely being a champion sportsperson.
The official definition of genius is an “exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability”. Ronnie O’Sullivan is a creative force possessing a serene sense of invention that has never been witnessed in professional snooker since the 1977 World Championship heralded the dawning of the televised era from black-and-white to full colour – and in full bloom six decades on amid a slightly vexed battle with the Hairy Bikers and Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em which perhaps sums up SPOTY's years of refusal.
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Unlike Banksy's "Aachoo!!" in Bristol, it appears to have been sniffiness about the working-class roots of snooker among the panel of judges that has bewilderingly denied O'Sullivan's access to the public ballot paper, but finally there has been a clarity of thought by a select committee left scrambling in the year of the pandemic. Snooker's place at the top table is long overdue since Stephen Hendry finished second behind Gazza in 1990. It is absurd such a figure has been overlooked for so long when you consider he took a year's sabbatical between his 2012 and 2013 world title successes.
At the age of 44 years and 254 days, O’Sullivan became the second oldest world champion of all time behind fellow six-times champion Ray Reardon – who was 45 years and 203 days in 1978 – with an 18-8 filleting of Kyren Wilson in August. His body of work is beyond debate.
When he washes up at the Masters in January – an event he has won a record seven times – he will be entering his 29th year as a professional at the very summit of a sport he performs rather than merely plays. The Garry Kasparov of the green baize? Quite possibly with a canvas full of colour, a mindful of possibilities and a curious penchant to perform how he sees it based on dedication, raw talent and genuine instinct.
His eccentric and elegant sprint to the line in his 17-16 win over his nemesis Mark Selby in the World Championship semi-final was something to behold with breaks of 138, 71 and 64 raging against the dying of the light by winning the final three frames at the speed of light.
There have been countless examples of his signature pieces splattered all over the snooker scene over four decades, the latest one being the stunning view from above table mountain at the recent Scottish Open when viewers were given a rare view into the method in the madness of making a 127 break that amounts to delving through chaos theory with a cue.
Watch amazing overhead view of O'Sullivan's sublime 127 clearance
The speeded up version at just over two minutes is only marginally faster than O’Sullivan at his normal tempo, 23 years after he compiled the fastest and most fabulous 147 of all time clocked at five minutes and eight seconds in 1997 when a wonky clock deemed it be 12 seconds slower. He can play with both hands as he shapes the table into his liking before the balls gradually greet pockets with more relish than Fagin from Oliver.
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The seventh frame of the 2012 World Championship final was another one from the O’Sullivan cannon as he made a 92 with commentator Willie Thorne – the great WT who tragically passed away in June – suggesting he’d struggle to make over 20. That’s worth another look on YouTube if you fancy witnessing true genius at work brought to you via Essex.
Or what about the 147 against the odds in the final frame of his 9-3 win over Ding Junhui in the 2014 Welsh Open final? An awe-inspiring, attacking approach to cleaning up a messy table with as much attention to detail as the Savoy.
This onlooker's personal favourite was the 6-0 walloping of poor Ricky Walden in the quarter-finals of Masters in 2014 when his opponent scored 38 of his 39 points in the first frame of a match lasting only 58 minutes. He totted up 556 points without reply in a display 1997 world champion Ken Doherty described as “probably the best performance I have seen from anybody in all the years I've been coming to the Masters”.
When he made his 1000th career century in his 10-4 win over Neil Robertson at the Players Championship final in March 2019, writer, actor, comedian and raconteur Stephen Fry quickly paid tribute to O’Sullivan.
Ronnie O'Sullivan in action in the UK Championship
Image credit: Eurosport
"I know you must get tired of hearing this, Mozart, genius at work and all that, probably bores you rigid, but I wish you knew, perhaps you do, just how much pleasure you've given to millions of us who adore snooker, and who find watching you play one of the most thrilling sights in all of sport,” said Fry.
"It's been a privilege to be alive at the same time as you, Ronnie, it's a wonderful thing. So thank you, as well as congratulations."
O’Sullivan admits his vocation is an acquired taste in a time when attention spans are shrinking amid the technological morass of modern life. Snooker feels like a throwback to a more innocent time when a few frames with your mates down the club was the order of the day. Like Fry, his friend the contemporary artist Damien Hirst, can see the beauty in his approach to snooker as a modern art form.
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“It’s a different type of sport,” explains O’Sullivan. “A lot of people, like Stephen Fry and Damien Hirst, appreciate the skill and level and precision of snooker.
“Would you catch them at a football match? Probably not. We bring a different type of lover to the sport. Stephen Fry is a genius, Damien Hirst is a genius, but they see the genius in what we do by playing snooker.
“If you mentioned football to them, it is probably not something they can relate to as much.
“Different sports relate to different people in different ways. Is snooker a sport? It’s like chess with balls. In many ways, we’ve come to accept it as a sport so you’d have to say it is a sport, but then you’ve got people out there who’d argue against that.”
While some will make the case for Hamilton, Fury, Liverpool's Premier League-winning captain Jordan Henderson, England cricketer Stuart Broad or even jockey Hollie Doyle because they exert more in a physical sense, the argument can be also made that O’Sullivan plays the thinking man’s game.
“Snooker is not a physical sport, it’s more a mental sport,” comments O’Sullivan. “Maybe you should have a division of sports. You’ve got your athletic sports and less athletic sports where you use more of your mind and skill, a little bit like golf.
“There is an athleticism to golf, but really it is more of a mental sport rather than a physical one.
“Snooker is a still ball sport, the same as golf. Darts is similar. If you throw a dart and it doesn’t hit its target, it’s not the dart’s fault, it’s your fault.
“In football, a ball can hit off a player and land to you. If that ball goes in off your knee, you think 'wow, you’ve scored a goal'.
“In snooker and golf you have to be accurate. In golf, you can’t hit the ground, take a big divot and get a hole in one or make a 147.
“It is purely ball striking and technique and to be able to combine the mind with getting the perfect technique. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Snooker has provided O’Sullivan with a constant and cathartic ally as he fought off the demons that affect all geniuses. He can be harder work than some of the breaks he makes, but he is also extremely affable when the mood takes him. Keeping the mood music uplifting can be difficult enveloped by mind games.
“That’s why I always call it snooker depression because you can go quickly go down this hole of searching for something and then forgetting,” he says. “Golf, snooker, darts, there’s probably a lot of other sports that can be put into that category.”
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A few days after he had lifted the six of his record seven UK Championships in 2017, I asked him what he made of Lionel Messi’s billing as genius at Barcelona having witnessed him during a pre-season match at West Ham. There are similarities in mindset.
“I think you have to play the game the way you know how to do it,” said O'Sullivan. “I don’t think Messi could play the game any other way really. You’ve just got to express yourself. I don’t go out there to do it, it’s just how I’ve always played.”
If you plug yourself into the Sports Personality of the Year on Sunday night, there will six worthy nominees, but only one genius. He is the bloke brandishing a snooker cue.
LATEST SPOTY ODDS
- Lewis Hamilton 2/5
- Hollie Doyle 5/2
- Ronnie O'Sullivan 16/1
- Tyson Fury 25/1
- Jordan Henderson 25/1
- Stuart Broad 250/1