Eight months out, limited practice, bad back, problems with insomnia, yet still. Yet still. Ronnie O’Sullivan returns to snooker and wins the 2016 Masters title. For a record-equalling sixth time.
It fits the fairy-tale, it fits the legend. It fits the story snooker wants to promote – that Ronnie’s talent and skill is so far in excess of his contemporaries that he can just return at will and win tournaments at the flick of his wrist. That he is, truly, a genius. (At snooker.)
Part of that may be true.
But it takes a lot to be a winner, even more so to be a repeated winner. Even for a genius. Talent alone doesn’t get you far. You can be lucky once, but not six times.
Interestingly, Mozart, the genius composer with whom Ronnie is often compared, suffered with a similar reputation – it suited Mozart’s legend to make out that he never worked at his outrageous god-given talent. But he did. He worked hard to hone it and perfect it. As has Ronnie.
As has Roger Federer. As has Messi. As did Senna. As did those few other prodigious sporting talents that Ronnie sits alongside – the greats. They honed their talents into weapons.
But, of course, Ronnie is separate from them, is different, in one crucial way.
Ronnie’s mental state can be as fragile as porcelain and, rather perversely, watching for the cracks seems to be as popular a pastime as watching the guy’s snooker.
In the Masters semi-final against Stuart Bingham, all the signs were there that we could be about to witness another derailment. The snooker wasn’t great. Frame ball got missed too often, the breaks kept, well, breaking down. Ronnie won. But it wasn’t pretty.
And then came the post-match interview with Hazel…
“I was just so frustrated that I just thought, you know what, I didn’t really care… that was really poor. It was so bad I didn’t care, to be honest with you… I’m cueing all over the gaff… I feel like I’m going to miss every shot I’m on… My touch is gone. It’s scary out there… I’m in bits… I’m just trying to hold it together.”
He did care. He cared so much that he started to beat himself up on national television and run himself down. These aren’t the words of someone who doesn’t care. These are the words of someone who is so appalled that they’re trying to run away from the scene of their shame. “I don’t care” actually means, “Oh god, I can’t handle the pain. Please don’t make me go through this again.”
Some have said these are mind games from Ronnie, that he says all this to throw opponents off balance. Sometimes I feel that he does play that card. But only when he’s not in the heat of battle. Straight after that match though, straight into the BBC studio, you could tell it was the truth.
There was no time for a calm, cerebral intervention from baize to studio. It was heat of the moment stuff. Ronnie looked exhausted and bewildered, that he just didn’t know whether he was coming or going. That outpouring of the synaptic spiral going on in his head was a stream of subconscious, it wasn’t contrived.
Take notes, people. That’s what it’s like inside the mind of Ronnie O’Sullivan 24 hours a day. No wonder the guy has been in out of therapy and has a psychiatrist on speed-dial. He must be physically shattered just trying to keep up with his own mind.
Ronnie has spoken – and written – about his battles with perfectionism many times before. On the flipside of perfectionism is always depression (though, interestingly, Ronnie seems reluctant to acknowledge this part, though other parts of his life seem to indicate that his issues are not confined or related solely to snooker).
The terrifying challenge for anyone who suffers with these afflictions of perfectionism and depression is the spiral – the self-criticism that increases in ferocity and scope as it takes hold. A simple error gets blown up like a firework, causing a million self-criticisms to come blazing through the brain. No control, no pattern. Just an overwhelming tidal wave that crashes over you and drags you under.
The challenge is to break that spiral. To stop it.
That’s why Ronnie after the semi-final was no contrived piece – it was a front row seat to the tsunami in Ronnie’s head taking hold. He’d played an average game of snooker, that’s all. But within five minutes this had become ‘I can’t play snooker and there’s no point anymore.’
The spiral is… That. Quick.
Come the final, Ronnie was a changed man. Not only was there composure and patience but even his hair seemed under control – the peacock-flair of previous days replaced with a far more conservative style. This was a controlled Ronnie – just.
Perhaps it was the sudden appearance of Dr Steve Peters in his corner. Perhaps. Though I’ve always felt Ronnie gives too much power, too much credit to Steve’s work.
Steve may well be a godsend to Ronnie in his mind-management, in bringing order to the chaos. He has given Ronnie the tools. But Ronnie needs to take credit too. It’s his mind, his talent. Steve can’t go out there for hours on end and play at his level, compete at his level, pot ball after ball, wait patiently in the chair when you have to. Only Ronnie can do that. Only Ronnie did that.
He could have fallen apart. He still wasn’t playing great – not to the standards Ronnie expects from himself. Sure, Ronnie at 70% is better than anyone else (such, genuinely, is the gulf between him and the rest) but this wasn’t ‘snooker from the Gods’ again.
There were a few grimaces and a few shakes of the head. But he still won. By one hell of a margin.
This wasn’t a ‘cling on with your fingernails’ type win either. This was systematic, persistent, deliberate match-play snooker where Ronnie made it happen – he took on the long pots (and made them) and, when he had to, the safety play was rolled out.
That’s Ronnie thinking calmly.
If Ronnie were porcelain, if he were as fragile as some (possibly including himself) believe, he would have crumbled. He would have done a ‘2006 UK Championship against Stephen Hendry’ and walked out of the game. He would have swiped his cue again, as he did last year at the Worlds. He would have found any reason to start messing up the smooth running of the match.
But he didn’t.
It takes real steel to hold yourself together when only the day before you’ve been knocked out, defeated, so appalled that you just can’t face yourself in the mirror. To pick yourself up off the floor and go out the next day and win a major sporting event, well, that’s not luck. That is a wilful steely determination overriding the fears.
Maybe now it’s time for Ronnie to acknowledge that he is stronger than he thinks he is, that he has lasted and succeeded for as long as he has because he is stronger than the synaptic misfires in his head.
Beneath the rock and roll star playboy exterior is, undeniably, a fragile and complicated self-esteem. But underneath that may well be a core of steel. Ronnie is harder than he thinks
He has worked hard at his talent for years (and years) and he has worked hard on his mind. His talent is more under his control than he acknowledges.
Perhaps we have reached the point when, instead of being fascinated by the brief breakdowns, we should instead marvel at the strength of a man who really has the strength to win consistently and persistently for over a decade despite his fragility. You don’t see any of the other greats suffer like this. That he can stand alongside them despite his challenges, is quite something.
If he wants the sixth World title, he can do it. It will hurt and it will take an almighty management of the mind but that fractured mind of his is stronger than it appears.
1, 2 & 4. Photographs by BBC Sport
3. Photograph by Eric J Whitehead
5. Photograph by York Press