Forget Roger Federer or Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronnie O’Sullivan is the most skilful sportsperson the world has ever seen. The reason is simple: snooker itself is the most complex of all sports to master, and O’Sullivan is its greatest ever exponent.
Before we go any further: I’m not talking about charisma, or character, or the atmosphere created by a sporting occasion. I know that a pulsating football match in front of 100,000 at the Nou Camp generates its own kind of excitement. I’m simply talking about physical skill, the dexterity required by the game. And on that score, O’Sullivan has no equal.
Like many a genius, he suffers from the problem of being so good at what he does that he makes it look easy, meaning that – perversely – he rarely gets the credit he deserves. This is a particular issue in snooker. Many people have never seen a full-size table up close. But they have seen pool tables in pubs, and so assume a snooker table is essentially the same thing. Wrong. It is four times the area (12 feet by 6 feet), and with pockets that are much tighter. The accuracy required for a long pot is incredible. ‘The margins,’ says Rob Walker, the MC who introduces the players at snooker tournaments, ‘are millimetres. Even an amateur who plays on club tables can’t appreciate how good Ronnie is, because the pockets on professional tables are way tighter. The skill he has is astonishing.’
Former world champion Steve Davis rates O’Sullivan above even Tiger Woods or Roger Federer. ‘I know they’re fantastic, [but] I reckon Ronnie, in his own sport, is more of a genius than even those greats.’ Golf is one of the few sports whose skill levels rival snooker, not just in accuracy but in the need to apply different types of spin to the ball to make it react in different ways. But even in golf you’re only affecting one ball. In snooker you have to hit the cue ball in such a way that it affects another ball, sometimes several other balls. And in golf, your opponent can’t influence your shot. In snooker, they can play a safety shot that ties you up. You have to worry about their game as well as your own.
And Federer? Yes, of course he’s incredibly skilful. And unlike O’Sullivan he has to deploy that skill in real time, with only a split second to react to a ball coming towards him at 100mph. But each time he faces exactly the same court, with only one variable (his opponent) on the other side of the net. A snooker player has 22 variables (the balls) to contend with. Every time O’Sullivan comes to the table (other than to break off, when the balls are always in the same position) he is facing a situation no snooker player has faced before, or will ever face again. Similarly one of snooker’s other rivals in terms of skill – darts – can’t pose quite the same level of difficulty, as each visit to the oche gives you exactly the same blank board.
Where else might we look for someone as skilled as O’Sullivan? Cricket? Daniel Norcross of Test Match Special makes a case for Garry Sobers. ‘He bowled medium-fast, orthodox spin and wrist spin – basically the full suite – and was possibly the second best batsman of all time [after Don Bradman]. The different disciplines of batting and bowling require entirely different skill sets. Bowling quick and bowling wrist spin is almost equally different.’ Fair points, and I wouldn’t for a second deny Sobers’s skill, or that of countless other cricketers down the decades. But in the final analysis, even a great bowler’s accuracy over 22 yards doesn’t match a snooker player’s over 12 feet. As for football – are you joking? Professionals regularly miss penalties from 12 yards. The equivalent in snooker is a black off the spot, and these are hardly ever missed.
Ronnie O’Sullivan always was astounding skilful – but in recent years he has developed the ability to play left-handed as well as right-handed. This isn’t a party trick. It allows him to reach shots which would otherwise require the rest (that’s how big a snooker table is). And he always breaks off left-handed, because it allows him to get precisely the action he wants on the cue ball. I’d go as far as to say that O’Sullivan is more skilful with his ‘unnatural’ hand than many sportsmen are with their natural hand/foot.
At some point in the near future he will become the first snooker player ever to score 1000 professional centuries (he’s currently on 986). It’s very unlikely that anyone will ever come close to matching that. O’Sullivan has taken 27 years to do it. This in itself – his continued dominance well into his forties – is incredible. At that age most sports people have faded because of reduced mental stamina, failing eyesight and a host of other factors.
Once in a while, talking about sport, I’ll throw in the ‘most skilful ever’ statement. It’s always amusing to watch the other person start to say ‘that’s rubbish’, then flounder around as they realise they can’t think of a rival to O’Sullivan. If you don’t believe how demanding snooker is, get yourself to a full-sized table (any decent club will let you have a try-out) and put the blue ball on its spot (the one in the middle of the table). Then place the white ball a foot away, lined up so the pot into the middle pocket is dead straight. This is the easiest shot in the game. Try to pot the blue, hitting the white ball right in its centre. If you succeed, try the same shot but applying side (hitting the white ball to the right or left of centre). Then try the same shots with the white ball off to one side, so the pot is no longer straight. Then try potting the blue and getting the white ball to make contact with a red ball you’ve placed against a cushion (this is regularly required to bring the red into play).
By now you’ll be realising just how much skill the game demands. And you’ll see Ronnie O’Sullivan in a whole new light.