With his record of seven Masters, five World Championships, and an unparalleled 904-strong (and counting) haul of competitive century breaks, an assessment of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s snooker career should by rights be limited to his incredible achievements in play.
But The Rocket – who made his breakthrough as the youngest player ever to win a ranking title at the tender age of 17 – has often seen his exploits overshadowed by a tempestuousness that divides fans and fellow professionals alike.
And today, the former World Number One is in a reflective mood. “I’m not sure that I have the best temperament for being a snooker player,” he concedes. “I know that I have the ability and the desire, but I’m not sure that I am blessed with that Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, John Higgins, Mark Selby temperament where they can just block everything out. I am hoping I can be seen a bit more like an Ayrton Senna; someone like that who wears their heart on their sleeve and they make decisions that some people may see as rash.”
O’Sullivan admits that sometimes he can come across as petulant. “But that’s what drives me on because I love the pureness of the sport,” he says. “I love to compete and when I hear stuff that’s not relevant to my sport and I feel is getting in the way of the sport, that bothers me a bit. I’m probably not the best at putting that to one side and just focusing on the match, but I have become better at not engaging with that voice and being able to just focus on the playing side.”
Such perceived ambivalence towards the sport that has made O’Sullivan a household name (as well as over £8 million) has been well-documented over the years. In recent times, though, there’s a sense of mature professionalism encircling O’Sullivan in competition – and a growing sense that it is stepping away from the baize that the Wordsley-born champion is getting the most fulfilment from.
Indeed, The Rocket has become somewhat of a Renaissance man. Philanthropic endeavours and philosophical interests have often been part and parcel of O’Sullivan’s mercurial character, and now he is the proud author of two works of fiction in his Soho Nights series: Framed and Double Kiss. “By doing all of this stuff, it’s enabled me to take on and create a little team of people who can help me do this while I am playing snooker,” he reveals. “Because for me it is about giving back and to give back, I need to stay busy and do stuff to make that possible. I would never go back to playing snooker 100 per cent – it works best for me when I do it as a hobby.”
There are other reasons for O’Sullivan to pull away; he candidly reveals that there are some people in the sport who he considers ‘not very nice’, so he chooses to limit his time with them as much as possible. “I kind of tolerate them and they kind of tolerate me, and I’ve got to just use snooker as a vehicle in a way that I am able to help other people,” he says. “That’s how I see it. My greatest work is what gives me my passion and that’s giving back. Snooker takes from me, but I have to do it because it enables me to open other doors and just help people.”
His drive away from the snooker table is reminiscent of the ambitions that led him to achieve domination in the sport at a young age. Now in his forties, it’s time for The Rocket to cast his expert eye over the young usurpers hoping to break through the crowd of established icons and make their mark on the global game. “I’m like a dog with a bone – I always give it 120 per cent,” he explains. “I see that in some people, but there are very few who have that drive and commitment to make them fantastic. I look at most sports people and I think they are weak and that they haven’t got the strength of character to be the best that they can be. That is not a criticism, because there’s only a few that can dominate and be the best at what they do: Phil Taylor, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna; not everybody can be like that.”
What, then, is the secret to success? “To be a great, great, all time great you have to do it over a long period of time. These guys who come along, do it over a year or two years, get themselves a five-year contract and then you don’t hear from them, I just think: ‘Mate, you ain’t got it. You’re weak.’ Because anyone who could have the success to stay at the top, they would. But it’s not that easy.”