First came the question, then came the look, withering in the extreme. Jimmy White had been asked whether he would gladly trade his popularity for a world title. “Are you sure, mate?” said the Whirlwind. “Of course I would.”
By Phil Yates
Over the years the snooker gods have bestowed the golden gift of adulation on a select few but it always came at a price. Popularity and sustained success were never compatible. You could have one but not the other.
O’Sullivan won five titles last season and took his career century tally into four figures
Until now, that is. The Rocket has broken the mould. As Stephen Hendry, deeply admired and genuinely respected but never loved by a legion of fans, put it: “Ronnie O’Sullivan is the only player in history to be dominant and popular at the same time.”
While Hendry – and Steve Davis before him – ruled the roost for a decade, O’Sullivan has been on top of the game’s popularity charts and regularly lifting trophies for a quarter of a century and counting. Throughout, there has been one constant; his unique ability to melt away the innate instinct of British sports enthusiasts to root for the underdog.
When O’Sullivan is the man in the arena he is guaranteed to receive the overwhelming bulk of support, regardless of opponent. For that session, forget cheering on the nearly man. Ronnie must take precedence.
Hendry often encountered hostile receptions, especially at Wembley Conference Centre where he nevertheless triumphed in six Masters, including five in a row. “The crowd could be tough to deal with at times but I learned to use them and the way they behaved towards me as strong motivation,” said the seven-time world champion.
“Maybe Steve and I weren’t interesting enough. All we did was practise and win. What people would read about us didn’t help in creating a character.
“In the early part of his career, Ronnie was seen as a bad boy like Jimmy and Alex Higgins but he’s always been a different class of player to them. It doesn’t seem to matter how many titles he gets his hands on, nobody wants him to stop winning or entertaining.”
Snooker fans in continental Europe, China and North America might find the premise of this piece difficult to fathom. Why, they might wonder, would being the best serve to dilute acclaim? Why indeed, yet Brits have traditionally been drawn to inspiring the plucky underdog, not pushing the game’s leading force to even greater heights. It is their trait to be intimidated by sporting superstardom.
In common with two of his sporting heroes, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, O’Sullivan’s star has never waned whatever the controversy, although Hendry does contend that can be a negative if things are not going well.
“There’s always a weight of expectation on his shoulders, it does create a pressure of its own,” added the Scot, who was commentating for ITV when O’Sullivan equalled his record of 36 ranking titles at the Tour Championship in March. “When 95% of a crowd want you to win and you suddenly start to miss a few, it can make you feel uncomfortable, as if you are letting folks down.
“But Ronnie will never know what it’s like to have a crowd against him, it doesn’t matter who he’s playing or where it is. It would be interesting to see how he would react if the crowd did ever turn but that’s just hypothetical. It will never happen.”
Of course, Hendry is spot on. O’Sullivan’s army of supporters will never switch allegiance or be silenced. He is a real champion and the People’s Champion – simultaneously.