WHEN THE MASTER Missed a MaximuM
Ronnie O'Sullivan generated a lot of press interest with his 146 break at the 2016 Welsh Open snooker tournament, understandably so given the unusual nature of the achievement and Ronnie's interest in the financial reward on offer. But some of the negative comments are a ludicrous overreaction, none more so than Ewan Murray's article in the Guardian.
As a snooker fan I'm excited every time Ronnie takes to the table. Here is a player who is still dominating the sport at the age of 40, when past greats like Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry were well past their prime; what's more he plays the game with a style and panache that the sport's millions of followers crave more than anything else: he combines the wizardry of Alex Higgins with the cavalier daring of Jimmy White and the cheekiness of Judd Trump: but unbelievably, he often wins too. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, a multitude of sports seemed to be teaching us all the same moral: if you want a fanbase, play with flair; if you want to win, you need to be a robot. So it was in snooker with Davis and Hendry, just like it was in tennis with Pete Sampras, and in Formula 1 with Michael Schumacher. Ronnie has turned this theory on its head, exorcising the ghost of Jimmy White's tragic defeats as he goes, and it's wonderful to watch.
And now he's arguably reached a new zenith in his abilities. For decades the 147 maximum break was a mythical, almost unachievable goal in the snooker world. Now the standard has risen to such a crest that were Ronnie to have knocked in the extra black it would hardly have generated any interest whatsoever (this might explain the supposedly paltry prize money which Ronnie balked at). Surely it's even more impressive that when this man is at his towering best, he has such a control on a snooker table that he can choose to make a point by spurning one, scoring a deliberate 146 instead. It's audacious. It's outrageous. And he's completely within his rights. The fans in the auditorium yesterday actually got to see something far rarer than a 147. They saw a genius making history yet again. In its own way it was just as impudent as his five-minute maximum in 1997.
All the media fuss is overstated. The odds were that no other player would make a maximum in the tournament, so Ronnie could reasonably expect to win the £10,000 prize money on offer anyway*. It would be a nice gesture if he gave the money to charity, of course, but no more so than any other millionaire sportsman donating their vast pay cheques to good causes. There's no reason to judge Ronnie O'Sullivan more harshly for behaving like a maverick. After all, that's why people love him.
Ewan Murray conflates yesterday's incident with Ronnie's repeated public statements about quitting snooker, which as a fan of both the sport and the player I admit I don't like to hear. But Ronnie has also been honest enough to speak about battling his demons and the pressure of performing on the public stage at the ludicrously intense level that the professional circuit demands. This is something for which a journalistic critic is unlikely to have sufficient empathy. The fact that Ronnie walked away from snooker after winning the 2012 World Championship, took a year out and then came back to defend the title in 2013 is one of the finest sporting achievements I've ever seen. If it hadn't been for the monotonous efficiency of Davis and Hendry sanitising the sport between them, Ronnie would have been BBC Sports Personality of the Year by now without a shadow of a doubt. (Steve Davis would probably be the first to admit that his award of this gong in 1988 questioned the very definition of the word "personality"). It would be wonderful if Ronnie can find the motivation to overtake Hendry's seven world titles and settle any argument about who's the greatest player of them all, but he won't define his career on this and neither should we.
The BBC recently made a stylish drama re-enacting the early 1980s snooker era of Alex "Hurricane" Higgins and Steve Davis. It's well made (and worth a watch) but it's a distortion of history, glamourising the odious Higgins and inventing a rivalry between the pair which was never an Ali v Foreman of the green baize as is painted. For true snooker drama we're lucky to still have O'Sullivan. Just a day after '146-Gate', he knocked in three more centuries as part of a crushing 4-0 2nd round victory over Tian Pengfei. It might be frustrating that there's no one else like Ronnie, but then that's the thing about a one-off.
*Addendum: in actual fact Ding Junhui did go on to make a 147 break later in the week. Ding may have taken the money but in doing so he also highlighted the uniqueness of O'Sullivan. It was Ronnie who bagged both the headlines and the trophy, winning the tournament at a canter and underscoring the unlikely brilliance of his 146.