Ronnie O’Sullivan, six-time world champion. It would’ve been lovely. And maybe it will one day come to pass but it wasn’t to be this year.
Last month Ronnie O’Sullivan lost the World Championship snooker final, the first time ever he has lost in the final, meaning that, for now, Ronnie is stuck on five championships ‘only’ – still two short of Hendry’s record.
Only Ronnie was never supposed to lose this match, and certainly not to such an economical player as Mark Selby.
Routinely described as the most gifted snooker player ever to grace the game, Ronnie is adored by snooker fans for playing with a style, a brilliance, that none in the history of the game have come close to matching.
But what surprised many observers this year was, not only the fact that Ronnie lost, but that he didn’t seem to completely fall apart as, sadly for Ronnie, his precocious talent has also come with (maybe inevitably) a profound battle with depression.
Ronnie’s battles with mental illness have been visible at snooker matches before – and not just in the drink, the drugs, the weight gain and the sudden weight loss.
In 2006, Ronnie walked out mid-way through a match against Stephen Hendry (he couldn’t bear how badly he was playing). In 2005 he shaved his head midway through the World Championship, adding that he thought he was “cracking up” and also in 2005, he sat with a towel over his head whenever his opponent (Mark King) was at the table.
Sadly few in snooker have been sympathetic with Ronnie’s battles, no doubt a reflection on the continuing challenges to getting the wider public to understand mental illness. But for the first time, in his new book Running, Ronnie speaks at length and with remarkable honesty about the grip that his battles with depression have on him.
“People often don’t believe me when I say it’s how I play that’s so much more important than whether or not I win and what I win. But it’s true.”
The book makes for extraordinary reading. It’s almost unheard of for an elite sportsman – Ronnie may well be the most talented sportsman in the world – to be so open about his mental health, especially when he is still playing, and still the best in his respective sport.
Only for Ronnie, he doesn’t view his profound talents in that way.
“At other times I felt I was past my sell-by. This was a new era of players, and I was deluding myself. I questioned the type of game I was playing and whether I was equipped to deal with the new generation. I told myself that even though I thought I was playing an aggressive game, the new players were looking at me thinking, who is this old codger?”
It’s just amazing to hear this as sportsmen are told routinely never to show weakness, to always project an image of composure and strength, even if you’re carrying injuries or doubts.
And in Ronnie’s case, it can seem even more bizarre as the other players don’t mock Ronnie – far from it. Most are in awe of the man. But that’s what happens when you battle depression and mental illness – what others actually think of you is irrelevant as the self-sabotage is unbreakable.
To address this Ronnie has been working with Dr Steve Peters who has encouraged Ronnie to recognise these negative voices, referring to them as his “chimp” and to work on addressing them.
In Running, Ronnie shares some of his diary extracts on his battles with his “chimp:”
Example 1: “Got up. Felt like the chimp was on me. Telling me I’m over-playing, should be at home with the kids, should be training, running, obsessing about getting fat.”
Example 2: “Woke up, chimp was there. Not as bad as morning before. He was saying, your right hand/arm will lose its accuracy.”
Example 3: “Chimp was telling me after the game that if you play like that you won’t win a tournament. Forget it!! Felt quite panicky in the evening when I got home.”
And even after he’d won his fourth World Championship in 2012, “But, of course, by the beginning of the next season the chimp was back, tapping me on the shoulder or staring me in the face, telling me I was shite.”
You have to remember, these devastating passages of self-criticism may sound familiar to anyone who battles depression, but these are also the diaries of one of the greatest sportsmen in the world. With this frame of mind, Ronnie has to go out, compete and win.
Breathtaking talent is both a gift and a curse. Ronnie has been no exception. At 25 years of age, well, you’re still young. But in Ronnie’s head, the battles were already well underway.
Ronnie had just won his first World Championship but instead of revelling in this victory, all Ronnie could weigh up was “until then I’d become known as the greatest snooker player never to have won the world championship.”
That burden of talent weighed very heavy on Ronnie. It’s well-known his father was in prison for murder and his mother would also serve time for tax fraud. The impact of this with his depression was already being reflected in perceived wild behaviour such as drinking and drugs.
But as Ronnie confides, these weren’t joyous times. “I don’t actually like alcohol. I just like the effect. It obliterates everything nicely for me.”
And when alcohol wasn’t available, there were drugs. “I remember getting to every World Championship and thinking, I can’t wait till this tournament is over ‘cos then there’s no more drug tests, there’s nothing for three months, so I can go out and smash it.”
Ronnie became a regular visitor to the Priory as he tried to find some form of stability. He even tried Sex Anonymous (even though he wasn’t actually addicted to sex) but rather dryly points out that “Sex Anonymous sent me back to drugs.”
Even religion. “I tried Christianity for about three months, but that didn’t do the trick either.”
As you read Running, you don’t feel any joy in this party lifestyle for Ronnie. He admits to being a very shy, solitary person. But beyond all of this, you sense these were attempts by him to handle the impossible responsibilities of his talent.
“I thought, I just don’t give a fuck any more, but at the same time I was desperate to win.”
And the huge pressure of his absent father was also taking its toll. “’Every time you’re on telly, Ron’ he’d say to me “it’s like I’m getting a visit.’ And I thought if my playing snooker is the most important thing in his life, I can’t stop playing because that’s all he’s got to hang on to and all he’s got to look forward to.”
But to fulfil his potential Ronnie had to come to terms with the fact that sometimes he will not play at his best.
Ronnie recounts his time with one-time mentor Ray Reardon who’d tell him, “’you’re unbeatable, Ron. You pot better than anybody and you’ve got the defensive game.’” But as Ronnie adds, “It might have been true theoretically, but if your head’s not screwed on right it doesn’t count for anything.”
And winning ugly, you sense, will always be a battle for Ronnie. “They’ve come to see me play, and if I’ve given the ten 50-minute frame I feel shit, and want to go home and kill myself.”
Ronnie won’t even acknowledge that some tournament wins are achievements. “I had no problem with the Premier League. That was a tournament made for me. There’s a stopclock, and you have to play a shot every 25 seconds. But because that so obviously benefitted my natural game I never counted it as a real victory.”
Sadly there are passages in the book that make you feel that Ronnie’s battles with depression, with anxiety, will probably never be fully resolved. “Often I’m so quiet, so withdrawn, that I just turn my phone off for days to get away from everyone and everything. As soon as I switch it on, I see emails and texts and I don’t know how to cope with it.”
Nor will they be resolved in snooker either. “In some ways that’s why I wish I was shit because then I wouldn’t notice all the faults.”
As Barry Hearn has astutely observed, “His biggest weakness is Ronnie O’ Sullivan himself.”
I write all this with an acknowledged bias – I am a huge Ronnie O’Sullivan fan. For me, not even Federer in his pomp was as brilliant at tennis as Ronnie is at snooker. As Stephen Fry tweeted during this year’s Championship: “We are privileged to be living in the Age of O’Sullivan”
Indeed we are, Stephen.
That Ronnie should have accomplished as much as he has is amazing. That he has done so whilst also battling a, clearly, crippling depression is extraordinary.
Read my latest article on Ronnie and his 2016 Masters win here.