Ronnie O'Sullivan: I don't feel trapped by snooker anymore

Evening Standard
Rocket | Ronnie O'Sullivan is gearing up for his 25th consecutive World Championship appearance: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Rocket | Ronnie O'Sullivan is gearing up for his 25th consecutive World Championship appearance: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

Ronnie O’Sullivan has an unlikely inspiration in his quest to be world champion for a sixth time… Jeremy Vine.

The Rocket has not won the title since 2012 — just after turning to the sports psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters, to whom he credited that triumph.

But should he prove victorious at the championship, which starts at the Crucible on Saturday, he will have the Radio 2 DJ to thank.

“I didn’t think I could play snooker for another 10 years and that’s simply because of the practice,” says O’Sullivan. “I’d been going down the same academy for five years and there’s just no atmosphere as it’s so quiet. But now I’ve got myself a radio in and I’m loving it.

(Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)
(Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)

“It’s Radio 2 and the best is Jeremy Vine. There’s music and a bit of chit chat. Now I find I’m having to pull myself away from the table.”

O’Sullivan is playing and talking with new-found freedom. In the build-up to his 25th consecutive World Championship appearance, another source of inspiration has been Roger Federer.

Aged 35, Federer has been resurgent this season and O’Sullivan, who won the Masters in January just after his 41st birthday, draws parallels.

“There were three or four years when Federer didn’t win anything,” says O’Sullivan. “He’s accepted he probably won’t be No1 as he’s not playing enough tournaments but wants to be around a lot longer and has to have that approach to do that for his health. Federer’s quite similar to me also in that I need to have fire in my belly. I can’t perform unless I’m fired up.”

During the interview, O’Sullivan also references Mel Gibson in Braveheart as he explains taking control of his life both in and out of snooker.

(Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
(Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

“It’s about getting to a point where you let go of everything,” he says. “Don’t let material things take hold of you anymore. As long as I’m running, boxing and playing snooker, I’m fine.

“Sometimes you listen to stuff on the radio and think ‘what kind of world do we live in?’ It’s kind of like at the end of Braveheart…freedom!

“If you can’t live in freedom, what’s the point? I just want to live my life, I don’t harm anyone. I’m not even scared of dying anymore. I’ll die one day, I just want to live like a free person until that point rather than feel guarded the whole time.”

(AFP/Getty Images)
(AFP/Getty Images)

His new-found freedom has partly put him at loggerheads with snooker’s rule makers.

After a threat of disciplinary action, which was then withdrawn, he took the bizarre approach of doing one interview in a robot voice, in another he broke into a cover of Oasis’ Wonderwall.

“No one wins but it makes people go ‘why is he doing that?’ and the reason I’m doing that is to not get fined,” he says. “But it makes me smile too and I won’t be scared to do more things like that.”

In conversation, the Federer-esque fire appears to be simmering at just the right time.

Part of that fire is down to being less obsessive about the sport. From a young age, he lived and breathed snooker but that has changed, for which he credits his girlfriend of five years, the actress Laila Rouass, and pursuing other interests away from the baize.

There is O’Sullivan the studio analyst with Eurosport, O’Sullivan the author — his first crime novel Framed set to be followed by a second — and O’Sullivan the television presenter following his series American Hustle. He admits: “In some ways, I don’t care as much anymore. Before, I had all my eggs in one basket. I don’t feel trapped by snooker anymore. Before, all I did was that.

“The most important thing is that I enjoy life off the table, and sometimes that can be hard. But I’ve taken control and doing more work with Eurosport makes me realise I love snooker, watching it and talking about it.”

But for all the insistence that he now cares less, he admits to being driven to beat the Major wins of Stephen Hendry, who boasts 18 Masters and World Championship titles. O’Sullivan is one adrift but victory alone is not enough for snooker’s showman.

“I want to win but win with style,” he says. “You want that feeling when you’re so dominant no one on the planet can break you. When you’re in the zone, there’s no better feeling in the world.

“I’ve always had self-doubt but I remember at the Worlds in 2012 I’d just started working with Steve Peters and said ‘I’m done, I can’t get past the last 16’. He told me to be patient and I won the whole thing and I was like ‘where did that come from?’ I feel good and I like to think that this 41-year-old can still surprise a few people.”

The World Championship will be live on Eurosport and Eurosport Player from Saturday to May 1, with Colin Murray and analysis from Jimmy White and Neal Foulds

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