Many people had felt that Ronnie O’Sullivan would never win another world title. Prior to last season’s World Snooker Championship, ‘the Rocket’ had not advanced beyond the quarter-finals at the Crucible since he lost to Mark Selby in the 2014 final, and most felt that the long-format nature of the tournament, over the course of a long and trying 17 days, was now more than O’Sullivan could bear.
But last year, inspired somewhat by the tournament’s strangeness being held mostly behind closed doors, O’Sullivan worked his magic at the famous old venue once again. He beat Kyren Wilson 18-8 in the final to earn his sixth world title and draw level with the great Steve Davis. Now, as the tournament rolls around again and he enters as one of the favorites in the snooker World Championship 2021 odds, the question is, does the game’s greatest ever exponent have what it takes to win one more world title to equal Stephen Hendry’s record of seven in the Crucible era?
In reaching five ranking finals this season, you would have to say yes, but in an unusual quirk for O’Sullivan, he has lost every one of those finals. Defeats to Judd Trump in the Northern Ireland Open, Selby in the Scottish Open, Jordan Brown in the Welsh Open, John Higgins in the Players Championship, and Neil Robertson in the Tour Championship means that if O’Sullivan doesn’t win the World Championship, it’ll be the first season since 2011 that he hasn’t won a ranking/major tournament.
Such profligacy in the latter stage of tournaments is unusual for O’Sullivan, and it may indicate that his powers are gradually declining. Except for the shock defeat to Brown in the Welsh Open, all his final defeats this season have been at the hands of elite-level players playing out of their skin, and O’Sullivan simply hasn’t been able to match that standard.
It’s certainly true that his mind is no longer as win-focused as the likes of Trump, Robertson, and Selby, and at the highest level, that extra degree of desire can make a huge difference. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of Ronnie O’Sullivan turns up at the Crucible next month. Usually, it’s pretty clear from the first match whether or not the game’s most decorated player is in full business mode.
In being the defending champion, O’Sullivan earns the rank of number one seed, and the result is that he is in a quarter of the draw that seems favorable. The other seeds in that section are Anthony McGill, Ding Junhui, and Stephen Maguire, who have not had particularly impressive seasons and will be heading to the Crucible at a low ebb. If O’Sullivan switches on and ‘finds a cue action’ as he so often talks about, then there’s no reason why he couldn’t breeze through to the semi-finals.
The real test will come if O’Sullivan does make it through to the one-table setup. With the World Championship listed as a pilot event for the return of crowds to live sport, there will be a significant number of people allowed in to watch the semi-finals and final. That crowd presence can make those long four-session matches a lot more tiring than when they were held behind closed doors last year and with a very small crowd for the final.
O’Sullivan admitted that much of his success in Sheffield last year was owed to the behind-closed-doors nature of the tournament, as it created a more relaxing atmosphere than in normal times. It’s fair to say that this year’s World Championship will be quite a bit different. We’ll find out from a very early stage whether O’Sullivan fancies the job of drawing level with Hendry’s world title count or if the exertions of all those lost finals this season have caught up with him.
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