Tragic death of Baltacha reminds us true despair can never be found in sport

Desmond Kane

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A few weeks ago when I was talking to Ronnie O'Sullivan about his hopes of winning a sixth World Championship snooker title at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, I made the point to him that he lived a charmed life when we stopped for a moment to consider the tragic death of his fellow champion Paul Hunter in 2006 from a rare form of cancer.

The swashbuckling Hunter was only 27.

Who knows what the future would have brought Hunter, but there is every chance he would have been standing where Mark Selby was last night, clasping snooker’s most visible trophy in a quaint little theatre turned snooker arena in Sheffield.

Like the tragic death of the young British tennis player Elena Baltacha, fate carried Hunter’s life down another path that did not allow time for reflection. Like Baltacha, cancer cut him away without any hint of remorse.

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Paul Hunter in 2005, one year before he died of cancer aged just 27

Snooker has rewarded men like Ronnie with untold riches. He is a multi-millionaire, but took the point on board wholly about health being his only wealth in life. The chance to spend time with his kids is the only real currency worth talking about.

"If I have 10 minutes left to live, I won't be thinking: 'I wished I'd won more world titles', said O'Sullivan. "It is important enough, but I've just got to be happy and grateful with being healthy. I might play less next season the more I think about it."

My grandfather once pointed out to me the meaninglessness of money. "People don't leave their money. They are taken away from it."

Death is no respecter of reputation. Or how much you have to your name. There is no virtue in being the richest man in the graveyard.

Selby is £300,000 richer yet no financial groundswell will bring back the father he lost to cancer at the age of 16. No amount of money could save his father.


There is no cheque that can solve the despair that cut into his voice when he pondered the fact that his dad was not there to witness his greatest moment in the sport.

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O’Sullivan’s disappointment at losing to Selby in Monday's final will linger for a few hours, but you suspect it will dissipate quite quickly from his system. He came down a few levels while Selby was on the rise. He did not perform well enough on Monday against an opponent playing at his peak. Professional sport ultimately rests upon getting it right on the day. It always will.

Snooker may not see O'Sullivan pick up a cue again until October or November. His life does not revolve around playing snooker. And why should it?

He is unlikely to improve his game by flogging himself for no purpose. Contrary to popular opinion, and some of the glee of his fellow professionals on Twitter who appeared to relish his demise as some form of comeuppance last night, O’Sullivan is committed to snooker, but not to the detriment of his lifestyle.

Elite golfers pick and choose their events. Figures like O’Sullivan and Tiger Woods are an endangered species in sport. He is snooker’s biggest star, ahead of Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis as the greatest player of all time, and miles ahead of the rest, including the redoubtable Selby.

One bad day at the office does not alter that fact.


Sport should be regarded as fun. It is not life or death, as the Liverpool icon Bill Shankly famously intimated. It is less than that. Much less than that.

Like Liverpool blowing a 3-0 lead in a 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace on Monday, a result that more or less ended their bid for the Premier League, there should be no prolonged wailing and gnashing of teeth after what has been a quite fabulous season under Brendan Rodgers.

Certainly no prolonged period of crying when you consider what the husband and family of Elena Baltacha are going through after she died of liver cancer aged 30.

There is real pain and suffering, a permanent state of purgatory from which there is no rescue. Life goes on, but it will never be quite the same for Baltacha’s husband and loved ones. There remains no prosthesis for an amputated soul.

Baltacha is somebody who had every right to moan. Yet she accepted the illness with the attitude that made her such a feisty competitor as a tennis player who reached the top 50 in the world of the women’s game against the odds.

"She never once asked 'why me?' or 'why is this happening?' She was incredibly strong and determined and that was who she was," said Baltacha’s agent.

"She achieved an awful lot - and in the context of having a serious liver condition that she struggled with since the age of 19. This is why she should be held up as a role model.

"She went through it all without the slightest bit of self pity or ego."

We are all poor mortals. It might have a rotten and unfulfilling Bank Holiday Monday for followers of figures and teams who play sport the way it should be played, such as O'Sullivan and Liverpool, but their time will come again. Time, that fleeting moment of self-awareness that can never be savoured enough.

"Action is my middle name, I can't waste time any more," sings Morrissey. "Everybody has a date with an undertaker. A date that they cannot break."

Time remains such a precious commodity than none of us can take it for granted. Yet we all do.

With the ability to go out for a walk or sit and stare into the sky with a cup of tea, we are all millionaires. We just don’t appreciate it.

If you are griping about feeling unfulfilled in your life, whatever your station in life, stop for a second and consider the suffering poor Elena Baltacha endured.

And then think about it.

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