MARK SELBY'S HOME! Rough Cut

Can The Rocket Reach Seventh Heaven?

A seventh world title for Ronnie O’Sullivan is likely to also see him hailed as the greatest ever.

By Hector Nunns

Is this the year to hail the undisputed greatest snooker player of all time? That is the question on the minds of many snooker fans ahead of this year’s Betfred World Championship, if not so much for defending champion and reluctant hero Ronnie O’Sullivan.

The Rocket claimed a sixth world title at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield in August beating Kyren Wilson in the final, leaving him just one short of Stephen Hendry’s record seven triumphs in the 17-day marathon of mind and body on snooker’s most iconic stage.

The current world number two, O’Sullivan has been at pains to stress that his form this season has been “mediocre”. There have been moments and flashes of brilliance, and those have helped take him to five ranking tournament finals.

Unusually for O’Sullivan, with a 70 per cent win rate in such showpieces at the beginning of the campaign, he has lost all of them. He even openly questioned whether his hunger and killer instinct were as keen given a more laid-back approach to life and the game these days.

And he has certainly been playing down any questions about equalling Hendry’s most cherished record, having already overtaken him on ranking titles (37), the major tournaments also including the Masters and UK Championship (20), 147 maximum breaks (15) and centuries (1,102).

O’Sullivan, who has had lots to say about many other issues in the build-up to this year’s World Championship, said: “I suppose winning a seventh world title is now a real possibility. But I will be happy if I don’t embarrass myself.

“I would never want to go to the Crucible and have an absolute stinker. That is my starting point. And then if I can win a couple of matches, then great. You just don’t want to make a fool of yourself.”

Former world champion Ken Doherty is clear on the issue. He said: “It would befit Ronnie’s career if he did win a seventh to equal Stephen Hendry. Whenever the question is posed out there ‘who is the greatest?’, many would already say it is Ronnie O’Sullivan.

“But that world title tally is always there, Stephen has the most. Ronnie knows that, it is always raised. It would be the cherry on the cake of his other achievements, and then for me he would be the undisputed best of all time.”

Legend Hendry, now 52 and having made a comeback this season after nine years in retirement, was brutally honest about the prospect of seeing his record matched. He said: “I am not going to lie, I would be disappointed if Ronnie equalled that record.

“So I’m not going sit there and think ‘Oh no, it doesn’t matter’, because it does matter – it is a record I hold very proudly. If he equals it, fair play to him, and you could only say that’s an incredible achievement. He is a phenomenal snooker player, and sportsman. Is there anyone else as talented at their sport? But I’m certainly not going to lie and say that I would be over the moon about it!”

O’Sullivan has spoken this week about time spent relaxing with his artist friend Damien Hirst, revealing: “We get together, mix a few paints up, get the old stirring pot out, put it all on a canvas. I love painting with him, it’s very therapeutic.”

There has been a minor cue crisis in the build-up to the blue-riband event, though that looks to have been solved with emergency repairs by John Parris. And O’Sullivan will be replicating last year’s successful routine before and after matches while he remains in the draw – heading out to the west of Sheffield and running to the edge of the nearby Peak District.

O’Sullivan, back up to around 35-40 miles a week after recovering from injury, said: “There are some great routes and it’s nice to be doing some different ones. We go up to Endlcliffe Park, and keep going until we get to the Peaks and then come back again.”

It looks an open tournament, and the betting reflects that. Sponsors Betfred have world number one Judd Trump as favourite at 7/2 for a second world title, and O’Sullivan at 5-1. However Neil Robertson (also 5-1), Mark Selby (13-2) and John Higgins (10-1) all have strong claims.

Some shrewdies believe Kyren Wilson will one day lift the trophy, and Yan Bingtao, who won the Masters in January, has one more chance to  take another of Hendry’s records by a single month – that of being the youngest ever world champion. Hendry was 21 when his era of dominance began in 1990.

But all eyes on opening day will be, as they usually are, on O’Sullivan – a spotlight he has had to cope with as the sport’s box office king for three decades. His half of the limited capacity arena is sold out, and they along with millions of TV viewers will be looking for the Rocket to run through a repertoire that has brought him success and adulation in equal measure.

Tickets for the tournament are available now – for details click here