Ronnie O’Sullivan knows all about mind games. On many, many occasions he’s inadvertently lost a mental battle with himself and now he’s seemingly turning that on his opponents.
The 2009 World Championship when he crashed out 13-11 in the second round to Mark Allen having been ahead going into the final session springs to mind. More recent examples include his Crucible exit to Stuart Bingham and last year’s The Masters humbling at the hands of Neil Robertson. Any player can lose to any player in snooker… but the manner of some of his defeats over the course of his career have suggested he’s defeated himself rather than necessarily been beaten.
But now ‘The Rocket’ is a different kind of player. By missing tournaments the others always have the threat of O’Sullivan hanging over them, apparently primed for a return at any given point.
Never has an absence been so noticeable in sport and you have to wonder what impact that has on the other guys, even someone as experienced and capable as Mark Selby, who was put to the sword on Thursday.
Selby is the current world number one, has won the Triple Crown, is a five-time The Masters finalist – winning it on three occasions – and the bookmakers couldn’t really split them pre-match, with the Leicester man a marginal underdog. O’Sullivan swatted him aside 6-3, completing the victory with an awesome clearance having trailed 70-0 to win the ninth frame 73-70 – indeed snooker legend Steve Davis branded it one of the greatest clearances of all time in the immediate aftermath.
A vintage performance essentially; but not according to the man himself.
Speaking to the BBC afterwards he gave us these insights on his game.
“I don’t feel that great to be honest with you. I’m just trying to kid myself that I’m confident.”
“Unless I start playing as if I’m confident then I’ve probably got no chance, and that probably won the game.”
As an abstract idea what he’s saying makes sense, theoretically, but it does not reflect anything I saw from that performance. I can’t believe after watching him against Selby that he’s not feeling pretty good, and besides manufactured confidence is surely as good as the naturally occurring kind.
Whether he knows he’s doing it or not; these post-match interviews where he alludes to feeling like a man in the midst of a Tiger Woods-esque case of the yips after dismantling a player of Selby’s standard are mind games.
Because all the other players will be aware of it – and that is bound to put some pressure on. I have no idea what to make of his comments and I’m not facing the prospect of having to beat him to win The Masters… who knows what’s going on in their respective, mildly panicked minds? Whatever it is – it won’t be ‘what will I spend my winner’s prize on?’
For almost the entirety of his career questions, both external and internal, over his mentality have dogged O’Sullivan but perhaps now something inside him has turned the tables. He may not be fully conscious of what is happening or what he’s doing, but maybe the gremlins are on his side now and a man who once struggled with self sabotaging tendencies has potentially become one of the true masters of the psychological battle.
Perhaps he’ll alter his stance if he books a place in The Masters final after seeing off either Stuart Bingham or John Higgins, but right now I’m left wondering who is he trying to kid? Because whoever it is – it’s probably working.