Ronnie O’Sullivan, Right on Cue

Ronnie O'Sullivan at the semifinal of the World Grand Prix (Snooker's Home/YouTube)
February 4, 2024

On January 20, Ronnie O’Sullivan played a perfect match of snooker. It was in the semifinals of the World Grand Prix tournament, held in Leicester—a middling English city with a minor arena. Still, in front of the capacity 3,000 spectators and over half-a-million television watchers, O’Sullivan played about as well as he has ever played over the course of a match.

"This is how anyone who’s ever picked up a cue dreams of playing snooker," the former player Alan McManus said in the live-television commentary during the match. But here’s the frustrating part of it all: What perfection means, in the brutal truth of snooker, proves to be not a whitewash but a 6–1 win in the best-of-11 set of frames. Some beautiful long pots but not a single truly spectacular, highlight-worthy shot. Not six but only four breaks (points scored in a single visit to the table) over 100. Three easy shots missed out of the over 200 shots taken. And the whole thing followed up by an error-riddled victory in the next day’s final round.

But that’s the way it goes in a ball-and-cue game that requires both the precision of billiards and the power of pool—played on a giant 12-by-6-foot table with small pockets, a napped cloth, and complicated rules. It’s a game in which good players, at the peak of their careers, lose a quarter of their matches and over half of the tournaments they enter. Snooker simply isn’t made for much perfection.

It must needs be that miscues come, but woe to him by whom they come. One common theory, held since he began play in 1992, is that the impossibility of consistent perfection has been the cause of the erratic behavior and childish petulance—together with a profound unhappiness—of Ronnie O’Sullivan, the greatest snooker player ever to play and the sport’s most popular figure.

In 1993, at age 17, he became the youngest winner of the U.K. Championship (part of the Triple Crown, the three most prestigious tournaments). This season, on December 3, two days before his 48th birthday, he won his eighth U.K. Championship, becoming the oldest champion as well as the youngest.

In the years between he grew his hair out and then shaved his head, only to sit through a match with a towel over his face. He was always among the most successful players, but wins were rarer than his stratospheric talent promised. In 1996 he was suspended for slamming into an official. In 2000, he checked into rehab after being stripped of a title for a failed drug test. In 2001, while winning the World Championship, he called a suicide hotline and dosed himself with antidepressants. He walked out of one match down only 4-1, saying, "I’ve had enough of it, mate." In 2008, in some weird and wayward mood, he threw away another match—and then made an obscene suggestion to a female reporter at the after-match press conference. Being O’Sullivan, he went on to win yet another World Championship a few weeks later.

In 2012, at age 36, after an almost two-year dry spell, he revived his career (with the widely reported help of a sports psychiatrist), winning major tournaments again. And now, age 48, he’s roused himself once more. It certainly looked as though he wouldn’t. After a spectacular performance in the 2018/2019 season, winning five tournaments, he won only six tournaments—and lost six final rounds—over the next four years (although with two World Championships, his sixth and seventh, among the victories).

For anyone else, that would be a fine run, ranking him among the top players. For Ronnie O’Sullivan, it looked like age finally catching up with him. There have been a few players who have played well as they grew older—notably the six-time world champion Ray Reardon, who, even after his career declined, managed to win a 1982 tournament two weeks after his 50th birthday. But for most players, after thousands of hours hunched over a table, the back begins to creak in their mid- to late-30s. Their eyes, too, start to strain at what had once seemed easy, bringing the cue ball, an arm’s-length from their faces, in focus with a target ball up to 13 feet away down the diagonal of a snooker table.

Stephen Hendry (the best player of the 1990s and the man whom O’Sullivan had to overtake in the sport’s record books) won his last ranking tournament in 2005 just after his 37th birthday. The fabled Class of 1992 has two still-competing players, John Higgins and Mark Williams, who became professionals the same year that O’Sullivan did—to the gain of snooker, building a base of fans who can cheer for identifiable figures over a 30-year run, but maybe also to the detriment of snooker, blocking a generation of players from television fame and prize money. Still, the four-time world champion Higgins is 48 years old and hasn’t won a major tournament since 2018. Mark Williams, three-time world champion and also now 48, has won only four tournaments over the past six years. Their snooker race is just about run.

And then there’s Ronnie O’Sullivan. Midway through the current season, he’s already won four tournaments, including the U.K. Championship and the Masters, first two legs of the Triple Crown, leaving only the World Championship in late April. He’s claimed over a million pounds in prize money (along with payment for his endorsements, appearances, and exhibitions). He’s put a lock on the world number-one ranking, and on January 23, he won his 15th match in a row, a quick round to qualify for a new and highly paid Saudi Arabian tournament in March.

The mercurial Rocket (as the television commentators insist on calling O’Sullivan) has continued his other ways, too. He recently declared that he doesn’t like watching snooker. He told the press that the arena for the Masters was "disgusting." He held up his middle finger during an interview in response to being told of disrespect from a player named Ali Carter, one of the generation of talented players whose final and semifinal appearances were limited by the Class of 1992’s decades of success. He threatened retirement, as he has most years since he was 18. And he remained the biggest draw in snooker, the fan favorite he has been for over 30 years. The whole of Britain knows his name, and the rapid growth of the sport in China (where he won the 2022 Hong Kong Masters, in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a live snooker match) has added millions more fans.

While Ronnie O’Sullivan often disparages his own play, especially when he wins, he did admit that his work in the Grand Prix semifinals on January 20 had been "tidy." Not perfect, but then snooker isn’t a game for perfection, and the Rocket was never really a perfectionist. He was—and at age 48, still is—an artist, with all an artist’s quirks, bad behavior, and odd pronouncements. All an artist’s beauty, too, as he plays the strange, imperfect game of snooker.

Joseph Bottum is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University and poetry editor of the New York Sun. His most recent book is the poetry collection, Spending the Winter.

Published under: Sports