Watching Ronnie O’Sullivan play snooker remains a cathartic experience. Even if at times for the man himself it must feel like a form of purgatory.
Particularly on days like Saturday when the sport's biggest draw somehow managed to lose the final three frames of the session to narrowly lead former taxi driver Gary Wilson 5-4 in a taut first-round battle at the Crucible.
O'Sullivan doesn’t so much play his sport as perform it. Think of Roger Federer in tennis or Phil Mickelson in golf to understand how at one O’Sullivan is with the green baize.
O’Sullivan sampled his first match as a 17-year-old at the Sheffield venue on April 18, 1993. He lost 10-7 to Alan McManus, who was 45 when he careered to the semi-finals a year ago. At the age of 41, O’Sullivan is appearing for a 25th straight year at the sport’s grandest tournament.
His opponent on the opening weekend of this year’s 40th edition is Gary Wilson, 31, a former cabbie from Wallsend in Tyneside who was only eight when O’Sullivan first ventured to these parts. In between times, he has lost his roof amid some hair-raising experiences for the Rocket.
Without being at his brilliant best against Wilson, O’Sullivan leads 5-4 before they finish on Sunday afternoon. He led 5-1, but Wilson clings gamely to this contest with the first man to 10 frames advancing to the last 16.
O’Sullivan played in fits and starts, making sterling runs of 57, 58, 63, 58, 122 and 63, but also slammed his fist against the table at one point after missing a pot in the fourth frame. If you want to see what this tournament means to O’Sullivan, it was revealed more by that little frazzled moment than any century he could roll in.
He will be particularly annoyed at blowing the final frame of the opening session when he missed a red to a centre bag on 63 when a century and 6-3 looked likelier. He left his opponent needing a snooker only for Wilson - who enjoyed knocks of 54, 64 and 63 - to claw his way back, force the required penalty points before ending within one frame with a glorious clearance. They resume at 2:30pm on Sunday.
The bald truth of Wilson mopping up the remaining colours would give O’Sullivan food for thought over his supper, which would have tasted sour whatever he had. World number 59 Wilson - who lost the final of the 2015 China Open 10-2 to world champion Mark Selby - is a hardy customer, and not here as a snooker tourist.
In 40 years of World Championship snooker in Sheffield, O’Sullivan has won the tournament five times. It is difficult to imagine another sport that lends such longevity to its leading man.
The story of O’Sullivan at the Crucible Theatre is like snooker’s Bayeux Tapestry with balls. In between conquering the venue, he has had bust-ups with officials, made the game’s fastest televised maximum at five minutes and 20 seconds and been berated by an opponent (Alain Robidoux) for playing left handed despite being equally as dangerous with his weaker bridge hand.
Read the full article on eurosport.co.uk: White backs O’Sullivan for sixth world title despite tough opening day