Forget Harry, Ronnie the Potter’s wizardry still capable of casting a magic spell
The ageless 90s kid has come through it all with his undimmed brilliance intact
Ronnie O’Sullivan plays a shot during his quarter-final match against Ryan Day during the 2019 Dafabet Masters at Alexandra Palace in London in 2019. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images
He has been a thoroughly English wizard for slightly longer than Harry Potter and has yet to win the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year even though he always been a performer of the very first rank and has more of that stuff– personality– than entire decades of previous winners rolled into one.
It’s half a miracle that he is still playing. He’s retired from his craft more often than Daniel Day Lewis and is just as compelling on screen as he returns, for another April, to the dateless theatre of Sheffield as the reigning world snooker champion.
He’s a true English eccentric and one of the last sports star-provocateurs, now getting into a minor spat with his rival Mark Selby, now limbering up for the tournament with a round of painting with his old mate Damien Hirst and all the time reminding us that we are watching a one-off.
Ronnie O’Sullivan is 45-years-old now but, much like Harry Potter, has remained a bit of a lost boy as he grappled with an uncommon gift and his place in the world. Just when it seemed as though snooker’s age of wild men had passed, O’Sullivan came streaking out of the snooker halls and his fancy home in Essex as a demon player who might have been concocted over a cauldron by Jimmy White, Stephen Hendry and Kirk Stevens – with ingredients provided by Jarvis from Pulp. Because he is unmistakably of that era: the messy England of the 80s-turning-to-90s, with an adolescence that is so extraordinary that it always demands recitation.
Not enough for the boy to be seduced by the Sheffield exploits of White and his ilk, not enough for him to go chase his fortune in the game as a teenager, O’Sullivan did it while contending with a family conflagration. He was a 16-year-old competing in a tournament in Thailand when his father – Big Ron – was arrested and sentenced for murdering a man who served as a bodyguard for the Kray Twins. That was 1992.
A year later, his mother Maria was jailed after the family business – a Soho sex shop mini-empire – was found wanting for tax returns. And for a few months – an eternity for a teenager – it was O’Sullivan and his little sister Danielle at home alone. “My sister was only eight and I didn’t have a driving licence so I couldn’t even drive her to school,” he said in one of several arresting interviews with Donald McRae. “I didn’t handle it great but we got by.”
On the surface, it reads like one of wilder plot twists dreamed up for Phil and Grant and the denizens of the Old Vic. But, of course, these are real lives and the O’Sullivans’ private misfortunes coincided with Ronnie’s incendiary arrival in world snooker.
How the trauma and turbulence of those years affected his development is anyone’s guess. His six world championship titles have spanned this century, from 2001 to the regal return to form during last August’s delayed championship.
Over the next fortnight he will attempt to join Hendry as the only player to lift the trophy seven times but his status as the game’s singular talent has long been established.
He uses the snooker cue – and the game – much as John Squire uses the guitar: as a lightning rod for self-expression and escapism and invention. He’s been a thrill from the start, clocking up the still unbeaten 147 in the absurd time of five minutes and twenty seconds, a feat that should be as enshrined in English sports culture at this stage as Bannister’s mile or Hurst’s last goal or the Cram/Ovett duels.
What you saw was what you got and even if the newspapers hadn’t chased him, the chances are he’d have spoken openly about the rougher aspects of growing up – the bouts with depression, the binges, the obligatory stint in the Priory, his on-again-off-again love affair with snooker and his unpredictable lurches in form, sometimes untouchable, sometimes falling apart.
He’s been his own worst enemy, too, constantly leaving himself open to the accusation of acting the knob. If there was something funny about boasting that he could beat Alain Robideaux left handed and then doing it, the feat left him open to the charge of disrespect. (But: he could do it! And he was 22!)
He can, over the course of one tournament, be hugely charming and boorish and off-handedly cutting about the sport and his competitors, once moaning about the boredom of when he is not at the table and has to sit “and watch some f***ing numpty poncing about”.
But O’Sullivan is such a smart lad and has been so outspoken about the dwindling financial returns within elite snooker that there has always been the suspicion of the true entertainer’s instinct behind these outbursts and slights. If nothing else, his opinions still turn heads and generate attention.
Most of all, you sense he loathes banality. He’s moved through the age of vanilla, carefully-curated sports personalities, media-coached to the point where they are afraid to articulate a true thought, without ever compromising. There’s something glorious about that. And there is something incredible about the basic fact that the ageless 90s kid has come through it all with the undimmed brilliance intact. He’s still chasing the answers but more serenely now- through family, through spirituality and through the game. He starts his title defence this morning and as usual, anything could happen.
Years ago, in conversation with Jonathan Rendall – the laureate of the rakish life – O’Sullivan’s thoughts turned to Chris Callan, a rival and equal from his juvenile years, who didn’t make it and abandoned snooker for manual labour in Europe. “He had all the shots,” O’Sullivan marvelled.
Well, he should know. Ronnie O’Sullivan is England’s gift, one of Milton’s day-stars: they’ll only look up when he is gone.