Sport Thought’s top 10 moments of the decade: #8

Sport Thought’s top 10 moments of the decade: #8

#8 Ronnie rockets to World Championship title (2013)

Every once in a while an athlete comes along who simply redefines a sport. Through a combination of competitive achievements and force of character, figures like Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt, Pele and Michael Phelps pushed the boundaries of what was deemed possible, re-wrote the record books and ushered their sport into a new era of popularity.

Although I’m not sure whether snooker players really qualify as “athletes” (yes it’s a sport, but when you get players like Stephen Lee in the top 10 I’m inclined to doubt the athletic requirements), I am certain that Ronnie O’Sullivan fits snugly into the aforementioned group. And among the many remarkable things Ronnie has achieved during his career, his victory at the 2013 World Championships surely ranks highest.

First, a bit of context for those anosmic (thanks Wikipedia) to the acquired tastes of snooker. Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan burst onto the scene in the mid-90’s, becoming the youngest ever player to win a ranking tournament when he claimed the UK Championship in ’94 aged just 17. In a sport often criticized for being slow and measured, Ronnie quickly became a fan favorite thanks to his mesmeric speed around the table, swashbuckling style and unequaled natural ability.

As his career progressed, however, he often failed to fulfill the potential of his undoubted talent. While all individual sports require immense mental fortitude, snooker does so more than most. At the World Championships, the sport’s flagship event that takes place over 17 days to mark the end of a gruelling season, matches can last for two days during which a player can often be inactive – literally no more influential on proceedings than the audience – for hours on end.

Despite his abilities with the cue in his hand, Ronnie struggled with the mental side of the game and only reached his first World final in 2001 at the age of 26. A sensitive, emotional man – something which also endeared him to fans – Ronnie publicly battled alcohol, depression and a combustible temperament. He stormed out in the middle of matches and made repeated threats to quit the game for good.

Which leads us nicely onto his victory at the 2013 World Championships. After winning his fourth world title in 2012, Ronnie announced that he would take an extended break from the game to give his mind a rest. Given what is required to achieve success in snooker – hours upon hours of often solitary practice without seeing the light of day – many doubted he would ever return. During the 2013, he played just one competitive match prior to the 2013 World Championships and so entered the tournament with no form to speak of. He was also 37 years old by this time, which is not as old for snooker as it is for other, more physically demanding sports, but still old enough to be past your peak. Stephen Hendry, Ronnie’s great rival, won the last of his seven world titles when he was 30.

At this point, I would usually dive into an analysis of a dramatic match or two that defined Ronnie’s triumph in 2013. But there isn’t one; he won every match with consummate ease. Indeed, he didn’t lose a single session during the entire tournament. To put that into perspective, it’s the equivalent of Tiger Woods, in his mid-40’s, taking a whole year off golf and then winning the Masters by 10 strokes. Or Roger Federer rocking up to Wimbledon after a year at home eating fondue (or whatever he does in Switzerland) and taking the title without losing a set. It was something that only Ronnie, with his unique flair and star quality, could have achieved.

If you ask 100 people involved in snooker to name the most naturally gifted player of all time, I guess that that 99 of them would say Ronnie O’Sullivan. I cannot think of another sportsperson who is so widely considered the greatest. Messi or Ronaldo? Federer or Nadal? Woods or Nicklaus? In snooker, there isn’t really a debate.

To reel off a few stats, he has made 1,024 career century breaks in competition. Hendry, his nearest rival, made 775. When it comes to a 147 break, that magical feat of snooker perfection, he has done it 15 times (including once at the 1997 World Championships that incredibly took him just 5 minutes). No-one else has more than 11. Ronnie’s fellow professionals and rivals all know, and readily admit, that to beat him they have to play at the top of their game and hope that he is off his.

Now at 43, he is still consistently challenging for, and winning, the biggest tournaments (although, surprisingly, he is yet to add to his tally of five world titles). He plays as quickly as ever, dancing around the baize and dazzling his younger opponents. And shows no signs of stopping, much to the relief of the sport’s governing bodies who fear the day when Ronnie will no longer be around to fill stadium seats. For snooker, quite simply, wouldn’t be the same without him.