It always feels a little strange when a champion doesn’t return to defend their title, and that’s what is going to happen at a Ronnie O’Sullivan-less UK Championship this year.
O’Sullivan is the undisputed star of snooker, a towering figure in the mold of Muhammad Ali, Ayrton Senna or Usain Bolt, and arguably he is bigger than the sport itself.
At least that’s how the BBC seem to see it. They felt compelled to quote World Snooker as saying they “were still expecting “a great event””, while noting it will “disappoint many fans” in their report of his absence. To me, this implies they think the tournament will be less exciting, a little strange for the company who will broadcast the event. World Snooker, incidentally, have declined to publish O’Sullivan’s decision not to enter on their official website.
Clearly major events are often adversely effected when the king doesn’t return to defend his crown, the FA Cup has probably been irreparably damaged by Manchester United’s decision to skip the tournament in 1999-2000 (former boss Sir Alex Fergsuon has since claimed the call was based on politics) and when boxers fight for a vacant belt it just isn’t the same as a challenger going toe-to-two with the champ. The exception to that rule is if the champion has retired.
That allows the fan to think ‘that’s the end of an era, who will step up and dominate now?’ but we don’t know if that’s what we should be thinking or not here. O’Sullivan’s future for me seems pretty up in the air, he’s taken long breaks before and returned rejuvenated and hungry for silverware, but he has, on more than one occasion, admitted he’s thought about ending his career and has felt dissatisfied with his life in the sport. The Rocket – typically – is giving very little away. Is he happy with his media work and playing Snooker Legends from time to time? Is he planning to call time for good or is he just taking an extended break? Will there at least be one final hurrah at the World Championship in Sheffield? Does he still have that desire to match or better Stephen Hendry’s record? I haven’t got a clue, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the man himself isn’t sure, all I do know is he hasn’t played competitively since April.
As big a star as O’Sullivan is, snooker will not die when he does decide to put down his cue, sit back and reflect on the tremendous feats he achieved. I really hope he does continue but I’m not going to give up on the game if he doesn’t. Admittedly, O’Sullivan is the kind of player you’ll put stuff to one side to watch, I might stop working or risk the wrath of the girlfriend to watch a frame when normally I wouldn’t but if he isn’t there someone will eventually fill that void.
At this point I feel I need to explain my love of the game a bit. Snooker isn’t rocket science – it’s much more complicated and intricate than that. I used to think of it as a fairly weird game, played by odd, slightly (or very) nerdy guys who were inexplicably dressed in waistcoats. Then I went off to university, had a bit more time on my hands and when, one hazy afternoon after three or four of us had split a twenty bag of weed, one of my buddies put the snooker on and my on-off love affair began.
I’ve got no idea who was playing that day but I was transfixed, it probably would have been the Worlds in 2004 or 2005. You see with snooker, the more you know – the less you understand. There are so many nuances to the game; safety play, shot selection, white ball placement, getting snookers, getting out of snookers, when to break the reds up, when to take a risk… and all the time you’ve got to be thinking at least three or four shots ahead – if not way beyond. On top of that you’ve got to outsmart your opponent, deal psychological blows and anticipate their next moves. For me and many others, it’s a game like no other.
The players who I’d previously considered probable freaks devoid of personality were in fact anything but. These guys were real sports stars who made up for athletic shortcomings with incredible skill and dogged determination. Snooker is not an easy game but you could be forgiven for thinking it was when watching the pros. Those guys smash in centuries on a regular basis but go to an amateur club and quite often a lot of people will crowd around a table when someone is on one, and invariably that sees them fuck it up. I was a regular at a snooker club for about a year before life got in the way and I bet I didn’t see more than two or three tons during that time, I never even managed to get even halfway there myself.
The re-emergence of darts has probably cost snooker a few fans in recent years and I can see the appeal. For one thing you can go and watch it, get pissed up and have a good shout and sing-along, which is practically unthinkable in snooker. They did try it with Power Snooker, but I think they’ve given up on that frankly ludicrous concept now. The difference for me with darts is I find it hard to take seriously as a legitimate sport – any chump with an arm can throw a 180 with a bit of practice. I know plenty of people who claim to have hit a 180 and I don’t see any reason not to believe them, a 100 isn’t even the best thing you can do in snooker but they’re pretty rare and I’ve never met anyone who says they’ve managed a 147 in an actual game, and if I did I doubt I’d believe them.
I said on-off love affair earlier and that’s because snooker is a time consuming pastime, both as a spectator and as a player. Some years I’m just too busy to get into a tournament and following all the events across the world is basically impossible, I tend to stick to the Worlds, UKs and Masters, but I always come back. That’s the concern with O’Sullivan’s extended absence, who is holding the appeal for the flaky fan if he’s not there? At 39 he’s already gone beyond what is generally viewed as a ‘prime’ in snooker but he carried on winning and looked as if he could go on forever, even if he does continue he clearly can’t do so indefinitely.
What makes O’Sullivan such an intriguing figure is his insane aptitude for the sport – he is the most naturally gifted player I’ve ever seen and that’s the general consensus – coupled with a complex and occasionally troubled personality and a reluctance to really accept whatever praise is thrown his way. Whether any current or future player can put a package together to match that remains to be seen but people have said that about the stars of the past too (Alex Higgins, Jimmy White etc) yet along came Ronnie.
Sure, this year’s UKs have been devalued a bit by O’Sullivan missing out but there are other former winners there, plus world champion Stuart Bingham, and the likes of Judd Trump, Mark Allen and Ding Junhui know how to excite – essentially each player brings something unique to the table regardless of whether or not the superstar is there. The five-time world champion’s decision to skip it is a blow to the event but it is just a flesh wound in the grand scheme of things, and certainly not the kind of trauma that will lead to a terminal decline.