From his teenage ascent to the top of the snooker world, to his current status as a bona fide legend of the holy baize, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s career has also been marked by a temperamental streak – in and out of the sport. But now, The Rocket says, he’s in a better place than ever.
In every sport, there’s an individual whose natural ability marks them out as a star from a tender age – and in snooker, that precociously talented teen was Ronnie O’Sullivan. From the moment the spiky starlet made his first century break aged just ten, there was a clear path to the pinnacle of professional snooker set out for him. And by the age of 19, the young upstart had won the UK Championship and his first Masters.
But while ‘The Rocket’ – so-named for his speedy playing style – was wowing fans and commentators alike, away from the table his occasionally tetchy temperament was developing too. Ever one to speak his mind, the seven-time Masters winner has often divided opinion. At times, it almost seemed as if the pressures of being snooker’s prodigal son were going further than just maverick behaviour. It’s an argument that O’Sullivan himself, in part, agrees with.
“I’ve never really thought that I’ve had the temperament for being a snooker player, in the same way that people like Stephen Hendry or John Higgins have,” the 42-year-old explains. “I know I have the ability, but I’ve never been able to separate things when I’m playing.
“That can lead to me making decisions that others might see as temperamental or of the moment, but it’s just the way I am. I wear my heart on my sleeve – but that doesn’t mean I don’t love to compete. I just don’t feel like I need the burden of some of the things people talk about that are irrelevant to what’s actually going on in competition.”
O’Sullivan’s sometime strained relationship with the sport he has conquered has been well-documented over the years. There have, for example, been many times the Wordsley-born champ walked away from the table altogether. On one occasion, he even skipped a Masters contest to spend time working on a pig farm, as you do. In fact, that’s exactly as he would do – such actions are surprising only to those who aren’t aware of O’Sullivan’s famed bolshiness.
On the other hand, though, there have been glimpses of another side to O’Sullivan – one of a man searching for some unidentified sense of self. He has often mentioned how he “tried Christianity for three months” without, it would seem, lasting enlightenment in terms of sticking to one doctrine. What is true, though, is that believing in the bigger picture has been the one thing that’s kept him sane.
“I would agree with that. Looking outward and taking a big deep breath… realising it’s not all about what goes on in my head, or around a snooker table – that has definitely saved me. To believe there is something else more important is vital to us as humans.”
It seems throughout the many snooker successes, stints in rehabilitation centres, and subsequent rebirth as a man who now prefers long-distance running to long nights spent at the snooker table, O’Sullivan has flirted with a host of philosophies and ideologies.
As far as religion goes, there were the tabloid rumours of a conversion to Islam, for example, brought on by his close friendship with boxer ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed; eventually scotched by O’Sullivan, but indicative of his understated abilities to enjoy the more complex things in life beyond superficial success. There are elements of Buddhism, too, that at one time or another he has felt drawn to – particularly during the more turbulent times of his career, when a Buddhist centre in Bethnal Green became a personal refuge of sorts.
“I’ve always looked to something spiritual because without that the world doesn’t make sense – it can’t all just exist without something higher. So I’ve toyed with a few ideas and taken a lot of comfort from that.”
That’s not to say, however, that he isn’t prone to showing glimpses of that sometimes fragile psyche and propensity for cheekiness. After all, this is the man who in 2016 told the world’s media that the voice of God had told him to give up the sport and begin a career in punditry. Be it tongue-in-cheek or divine intervention, O’Sullivan’s comments show one thing clearly: that behind the trigger-fast breaks and apparent confidence at the table was a man ever ready to make subtle hints to his supposed god-fearing – or at the least god-quizzical – alter ego.
These days, O’Sullivan says he’s dedicating himself more and more instead to his charitable foundation: “My greatest work, what gives me my passion and makes me want to live every day, is giving back,” he explains. And he appears to have traded the often-inscrutable elements of deep thinking for more scientific matters of the mind.
“I used to be on the search for things which would give me that inner contentment,” he agrees. “But now I’m working with Steve Peters, who’s a sports psychologist, and I’m realising how the human brain works. That’s helping me to understand how I was and why I was.
“Now I put things in place and can be a lot happier, looking forward to things that I do. I think that snooker was a difficult thing for me to handle and I am a lot better at handling it, but I have also got things in place that in turn puts snooker in its place. It’s there, but it’s not everything to me, and it doesn’t take up every minute of my life. Most games now, I treat like it’s a knock at the snooker club. I will give it its importance for that day, but after that I will be back to just doing my normal stuff.”
O’Sullivan balks at the idea that he’s become ‘philosophical’. It’s perhaps the clearest indication so far that The Rocket of recent years is no longer a mercurial talent with a tendency to be led astray, but rather far more settled than perhaps he has ever been.
“I’m not philosophical,” he states. “I don’t want to come across as someone who is weak and not got the bit between his teeth. I’m a fierce competitor and I always will be and that’s probably what has made me so successful, but I just have to realise that everything has its place and I don’t want to get to 50, 60 or 70 years of age and think that all I ever did was play snooker.
“There are so many great opportunities out there; we live in an age where you can be a sportsman but you can also be a designer, like Serena Williams. She can take time out of tennis and become a designer because that was something that she was passionate about. There are lots of people in other fields who are, for example, chefs and they turn to other stuff because they don’t just want to cook. What they have achieved in their chosen field has allowed them to go and do other stuff and those around them are happy to engage and support them in that.
“That’s the position I find myself in now,” he continues. “I want to explore other aspects of life and reach out a bit.”
It’s often been noted that O’Sullivan has been the epicentre of one of snooker’s most formidable entourages. Put in place by his father – who, despite being in prison, still plays a large part in his son’s ongoing tutelage – to keep the champ on the straight and narrow, this collaborative mind-set still exists in O’Sullivan despite his maturity.
“I’ve always had a tremendous support network – people around me and people more distant. Everyone in life needs that, to know there are people by their side, or to look to a greater source for inspiration and encouragement.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that although snooker is the ultimate solo sport, you’re never by yourself and we should all embrace help when it’s offered.”
Indeed, while once his minders and associates were keeping him focused, now it is the former world number one who is directing those around him with a renewed and refreshing sense of purpose. In the last year alone – as well as mustering appearances in favour of local charities close to his heart and entering the political sphere with an endorsement of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn – O’Sullivan has even branched out into the world of the written word. His sophomore novel, Double Kiss (Macmillan) has followed hot on the heels of last year’s effort Framed (Orion), and the quasi-autobiographical works have allowed O’Sullivan yet another outlet for that considerable drive.
“Every sportsperson is different, and you have to find your own journey whether it be tennis, golf or Formula 1,” he says. “They do so well that they are able to have other interests and stuff going on without it having an impact on their sport because they can employ people to run an empire, if you like. I don’t have that luxury, because I’m not in financially the most rewarding sport. I do OK out of it, but it’s not like I can hire a team of people while I’m playing and get them to sort everything out for me.
“But having said that, there are lots of things I want to do, and right now I think people enjoy working with me because I’m so committed. I think I’ve got to the point in my career where I tolerate people in snooker, and they me, but I don’t necessarily like them. When I’m doing stuff outside of sport, though, it’s different. I’m like, ‘You’ve invested in me, so I am investing in you. I like you and hopefully you like me, so let’s make it the best relationship and the best job that we can do.’”
Perhaps now it is high time that O’Sullivan has found his sweet spot. In his 40s, with years of record-breaking professional snooker behind him, there’s a palpable sense that a sea change has happened with regards to both his outlook on life and his relationship with the game that has made him a household name.
The quasi-boyish energy that seems to exude these days from snooker’s most enigmatic champion may have once been directed towards a narcotic release, or a spiritual search for belonging that encompassed elements of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam without finding anything of note. What this religious exploration may well have uncovered, in fact, is a lasting sense of there being something more to life than snooker – a champion’s higher calling. And this modern incarnation of O’Sullivan, in spite of his self-admission that his courting of religion comes and goes, is striving for something far more personally fulfilling than a spot among the pantheon of sporting greats.
“I have got a couple of other friends who are also like me, with so much energy that a lot of people say it’s hard to keep up with them,” he smiles. “But as long as you have got a team of people, I can give certain individuals a rest for a bit and let them have a week off and get themselves back into top gear and ready to go again, but then I will be back on them. So, it’s just that I have this massive drive to make sure that I complete things.
“I just don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a snooker player anymore; I would have done, but it became too testing and too tiring and something where I thought there were other things that I wanted to do.”
Again, O’Sullivan is at pains to point out that this sentiment shouldn’t be confused with someone who isn’t a fierce competitor: “As long as I have got the flavour for something, and once that energy is channelled into something, I won’t let go. Completion is everything for me.”