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Ronnie O’Sullivan once compared himself to Tiger Woods and Roger Federer and had long since booked his seat in that pantheon of sporting icons before this year’s World Snooker Championship, writes Ben Parsons.
O'Sullivan's genius with cue in hand was most famously showcased in 1997 with the revered 5 minute 20 second maximum 147 break that will likely never be repeated.
But what makes the enthralling O’Sullivan so untouchable is his longevity on the baize.
The 46-year-old returns to this year’s Sheffield showpiece for a record 30th year, remarkably back at the top of the snooker rankings for the fifth time.
“I’m never normally one for trophies, for records, for being number one, this and that,” he said after returning to the pinnacle once again this year.
“But actually, at my stage of my career and my age, that’s quite an achievement.”
For a player seemingly not overly concerned by the history books, O’Sullivan has made an indelible mark on the sport.
He sits at the top of the ranking win ladder (38), boasts the most Triple Crown wins (20), became the first player to smash the 1000 century barrier and has reached snooker perfection the most times with the highest number of 147 breaks.
But it is an injustice to solely judge O’Sullivan’s impact on snooker with statistics and figures.
His artistry, nonchalance and unpredictability all add to the enigma that has transcended the sport for three decades. O’Sullivan is pure theatre.
However, it is still burdening for some to quantify O’Sullivan as the greatest when Stephen Hendy’s monumental record of seven world crowns still eludes him.
'Crucible King' Hendry’s era-defining dominance in the 1990’s has not been replicated since and O’Sullivan cannot share that moniker without matching the Scot’s mammoth total.
The six-time champion has inspired so many of the exciting generation of players that will compete as the main protagonists in a gruelling 17 days at the Crucible, as he begins his own quest on Saturday.
O’Sullivan may be world number one but Australian Neil Robertson is red-hot favourite to win his second world title.
Robertson recently triumphed in a 10-9 classic in the Tour Championship semi-finals and another possible last four meeting between the pair would prove tantalising viewing for the Sheffield crowds.
That Robertson is the game’s most decorated overseas star was clear before his scintillating four ranking events wins this year, including a special Masters victory at the Alexandra Palace.
It is unsurprising that O’Sullivan has labelled him the ‘man to beat’ but Crucible demons could haunt the 40-year-old once more.
A bizarre record shows world-class Robertson, the game’s in-form player, has reached a semi-final in Sheffield just once since becoming champion in 2010.
A mental block needs to be overcome if Robertson is to become the tenth player to seal multiple World Championship crowns.
Meanwhile, Judd Trump will hope he has saved his best until last after an indifferent season by his elite standards, despite two rankings wins.
Defending champion Mark Selby has struggled with his mental health this season, taking a break from the sport in recent months. But Selby has proven on four occasions he has the fortitude to prevail in an arduous fortnight in South Yorkshire and cannot be ruled out.
The irrepressible John Higgins, long-time rival of O'Sullivan and also a four-time champion, is a constant contender despite carrying battle scars from five deflating major final defeats this season.
But it could be time for a first-time champion. Kyren Wilson is built for the longer formats and was O'Sullivan's victim in the final of the covid-affected 2020 edition of the tournament.
Zhao Xintong, 25, fulfilled his lofty potential with a sensational breakthrough UK Championship victory in York in December and O’Sullivan has set about mentoring the rising Chinese star that he has already heralded as ‘better’ than him.
But all eyes will be on 'the Rocket' on Saturday afternoon as he plots his tilt at a magnificent seven.
"I think Stephen Hendry had a really good answer: as long as my name is in the conversation, you have to let other people decide that,” O’Sullivan admitted, weighing in on snooker's perennial greatest-of-all-time debate.
Should he claim the world title at the Crucible crescendo come the start of May, that conversation will surely be over.