Desmond Kane

O’Sullivan ranks alongside Federer, Tendulkar and Messi, but where is snooker’s next genius?

Desmond Kane

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Picture: Tai Chengzhe

There was a slightly disconcerting image of Barry Hearn, the seemingly omnipresent chairman of World Snooker among other Mr Benn-like roles he is seen in this weather, emerging from largish television screens at Alexandra Palace in London over the past week urging fans to buy tickets for the forthcoming World Championship in April.

Sporting a voice and hair colour similar to the time Marlon Brando played Superman’s dad Jor-El and sent down General Zod in the 1970s motion picture, the ongoing Hearn used the prestigious Masters event to flog tickets to unsuspecting fans ahead of the latest staging of the game’s biggest tournament at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.

The slimmed-down 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy had waltzed into the Ally Pally to John Williams’ time-honoured score from Superman before being emptied out 6-1 by Mark Selby in the semi-finals. It is probably the wrong tune for the wrong player. There is only one Superman in snooker. There has been for some time.

Whether or not he is your cup of tea as a person, at times Hearn does not see eye to eye with the sport’s blue chip character, you can not dispute Ronnie O’Sullivan’s value to his sport. For better, for worse, nor can you question snooker’s value to O’Sullivan in a sometimes spiky relationship played out very publicly since the teenage Ronnie usurped Stephen Hendry to claim the UK Championship in 1993.

His 10-4 win over Selby at an animated Ally Pally yesterday was a fifth Masters gong to go with his five World Championships. It remains a pleasure to watch him make such a demanding sport, both in mental and physical terms, look ridiculously easy. So easy that some people assume snooker is simple. The pockets are so tight they barely have room to accommodate the balls these days yet O'Sullivan looks like he is playing pool in a pub.

When one discusses O’Sullivan the snooker player you have to compare him to true greats from other sports. His name should be regarded in the same breath as a Federer, Messi, Tendulkar or Woods. He is every bit as protruding in snooker as those talents are in their respective pursuits.

Yet he is strangely overlooked by some parts of the media in the UK. The lack of interest enveloping O’Sullivan and snooker from some British newspapers over the past week at the Masters has been bizarre, but then snooker has a healthier future than the sunset industry of print journalism.

It is just a pity that the BBC do not give greater prominence to snooker when there is clearly a drooling audience for the game that is being left malnourished by the snobby attitude towards an art form whose origins as a game for working men in snooker halls seems to be hard to shed. Attention spans are not what they once were. Snooker has suffered from a general dumbing down, and people’s inability to look and listen.

It was ridiculous that O'Sullivan did not earn a nomination for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award having returned from a year off to win the game's most coveted prize for a second straight season.

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The viewing figures continue to support snooker's standing as one of Britain's most popular sports. In the year when England won the Ashes in 2005 and cricket was broadcast by terrestrial television on Channel 4, eight sessions of snooker over the year attracted a larger audience than the peak viewing figures at any point during that Ashes series.

At least there remains O’Sullivan. Ronnie Wood and Damien Hirst attended O'Sullivan's matches at the Ally Pally to watch an artist at work. Snooker may be thriving outside of the United Kingdom, certainly in countries such as China, Germany and Poland, but every sport needs a sprinkling of gold dust. Without O’Sullivan, snooker is deprived of its big draw.

The problem World Snooker faces is that there appear few figures coming through to challenge O’Sullivan both as a player and personality.

O'Sullivan remains a huge fan of Celebrity Big Brother. He was not offered the chance to join figures such as Jim Davidson in this year's house, but would never forego playing snooker for an appearance in the house. Sniff at if you like, but there will be no better television viewing this month than Celebrity BB or O'Sullivan at the Masters.

“It would be crash car telly if I did that, mate," he said. "I would only do that if I was desperate - if I needed the money to eat and survive.

“It’s not something I would consider. I love it. It is great to watch, but I don’t think I could ever go in there to participate. I'm enjoying this one. Jim Davidson is a funny guy, a cool geezer."

At 38, an age when some players appear to be on the wane, O’Sullivan seems to be a figure improving. The only snooker player who can come near to be compared to O’Sullivan as snooker’s greatest player is Stephen Hendry with his seven World Championships, but then Hendry was more or less finished as a serial winner after he lost the 2002 world final to Peter Ebdon in the final frame.

The six-times Crucible winner Steve Davis was 39 when he won the last of his major titles against O'Sullivan at the Masters in 1997, but he was well on the downward spiral at that stage. By comparison to those two figures, O'Sullivan is a picture of good health.

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He is the complete snooker player, a figure performing strongly in every aspect of the game. Not only does he win frames with flair, he is equally comfortable when competing to win frames with safety.

In giving it the big sell like Big Brother, Hearn will not fraternise with shy and retiring behaviour. He has been promising previously unseen drama in the first week of this year's World Championship claiming snooker’s “youngsters coming through are now ready, really ready”.

Are they really? Where are these youngsters? Or more pertinently, where are the youngsters around who can possibly come close to capturing the public’s imagination like O’Sullivan?

There is a cliche about snooker being a young’s man sport. It is far from a young man’s sport.

Better diet, better health and better fitness levels should help a golfer win a Major title in his 50s. It seems likely that O’Sullivan could cover new ground to claim the World Championship in his 40s.

“I was the oldest world champion for 40 years when I won it last year," said O'Sullivan. "A 40-year-old winning the world title in snooker would be great.

Judd Trump was heralded as O’Sullivan’s successor, but you cannot manufacture personalities that the public will take to. The Belgian teenager Luca Brecel has been touted for riches as has Jack Lisowski, but saying someone is a future world champion is cliched nonsense. Unlike O'Sullivan, few can stand up to the pressure or have the self-belief needed to win matches under severe pressure.

The snooker writer and broadcaster Phil Yates has the opinion that there are two things snooker needs badly to move forward without O'Sullivan. "Snooker needs a star from continental Europe. Not just a world number 50, but a genuine contender from Germany, Poland or Russia to broaden the appeal of the game where there is clearly a huge appetite," commented Yates.

"And the other thing it needs is a genuine star. Anybody. There are not any O'Sullivans coming through."

O’Sullivan was held close to the bosom of the British public because he was a flawed genius, a figure who has dealt with the black dog of depression since his dad was banged up for murder around the time he won the UK title as a teenager in 1993.

The genius remains, but O’Sullivan seems far from flawed. Now he is just genius. He is the greatest player to play snooker.

“The legends of snooker will be at the World Championship, don’t miss it,” continued the all-knowing Hearn. There is only one legend of snooker competing who is worthy of the name. He knows it. We all know it. We were just reminded of it over the past week.

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