Reluctant Ronnie: Bashful O'Sullivan chases Crucible record set by 'Tiger Woods of snooker'

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Ronnie O'Sullivan declared he would "rather not be playing", claimed he does not "really identify myself as a snooker player anymore", and made the cheeky claim he is only competing for "a bit of quiet time".

Yet the potting game's biggest star is two steps away from matching one of the great records at the World Championship, sauntering through to the semi-finals at the Crucible in Sheffield to close in on a seventh title.

On Wednesday in the Yorkshire city that has hosted this tournament since 1977, O'Sullivan completed a 13-5 quarter-final win over Scotland's Stephen Maguire, with the Essex-based 46-year-old one of a number of cuemen who is showing that middle age is no barrier to success on the baize.

"I'm struggling to see anyone that can compete with Ronnie," Stephen Hendry said on the BBC immediately after the match wrapped up. "He's taken the game to a different level."

Scotsman Hendry, the only man to win seven world titles in Sheffield, said it "would be an honour" for O'Sullivan, with six triumphs so far, to move alongside him.

Already this fortnight, Rocket Ronnie has moved past Hendry on the list of players with the most Crucible wins, going beyond his 70 and reaching 72, and counting.

He has blasted all-comers out of the water with his career total of 1,155 centuries, yet O'Sullivan still defers to Hendry's own greatness, labelling him "our Tiger Woods of snooker".

O'Sullivan, who has been threatening to retire since his teenage years, has battled myriad problems away from snooker during his career. He had drug issues, drank heavily, and was a binge eater.

Just feet away from where he spoke to the media on Wednesday, he once assaulted a junior press officer.

Now he is a gym regular, lives cleanly, and recently returned to the world number one ranking. Many see this world title, and the £500,000 top prize, as his for the taking.

Asked about his training regime, O'Sullivan said: "I wouldn't be able to tell you what it's like to be unfit really. I probably overdo it a little bit. There’s no place I’d rather be, other than the gym or on a run. That’s probably the most important thing in my life, so I do it because I like it, and I enjoy all the friends I've found through running.

"The gym’s a nice place to hang out. Some people like going to the bar or restaurants, but I enjoy going to the gym. I do it for those reasons, not for my snooker."

O'Sullivan and fellow fortysomethings John Higgins and Mark Williams are recognised as snooker's 'Class of 92', a title borrowed from the Manchester United golden generation that featured the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.

Snooker's kingpin trio made their tour debuts 30 years ago. All are now multiple world champions, and have shown in Sheffield this year they remain formidable competitors.

O'Sullivan plays a canny game on and off the table, taking the pressure off himself.

"I don’t really identify myself as a snooker player anymore," he said. "I just get my cue out because I can do it, and it's probably the easiest thing for me to do, because it’s a bit of quiet time. It just gets me out of the house and around the snooker circuit.

"I'm just here to have fun. If I win, great; if I don’t, I’ve had a fantastic tournament. I’m not motivated by playing anymore, those days have gone. I couldn't put all my eggs in one basket and just play snooker anymore.

"I'd rather not be playing here to be honest. It’s a hard tournament. This tournament and the Masters are my two worst tournaments, I probably enjoy them the least out of all the other ones."

Despite this, O'Sullivan has the six wins in Sheffield and a record seven at the Masters, a London-based tournament that is the second most prestigious on the circuit.

"I’d actually prefer going to Leicester and playing in the [low-profile] Championship League," O'Sullivan said. "I know you guys might think that sounds crazy, but it’d mean I don’t have to put up with any pressure, and I love it. But you’ve got to show up to this one and give it your best."

O'Sullivan has found he is often mobbed in Sheffield, as the biggest fish in the goldfish bowl of the 17-day tournament, bona fide British sporting royalty.

He complained last year of being troubled in a nearby cafe by a fan he reckoned to be drunk, but if it is privacy that O'Sullivan wants, then it is privacy he will get.

"It’s all right," he said. "The cafe give me my own room now upstairs, so when I go in there it’s really good. I’ve got a nice hotel and a good system going. I try to keep as much quiet time for myself as I can, because it's quite hectic round here."

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