Ronnie O’Sullivan reckons snooker’s Holy Trinity will be sorely missed when they’re gone – much like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in tennis.
The Rocket takes on Liverpool’s Robbie Williams on Saturday in York as he bids to extend his own event record by winning an eighth UK Championship.
Six-time world champion O’Sullivan, who turns 46 the day of the final at the Barbican, is part of the iconic ‘Class of 92’ along with John Higgins and Mark Williams.
The trio are all in their 30th season on tour and between them have won 13 world crowns and an astonishing total of 159 tour titles.
And O’Sullivan, also a regular pundit for Eurosport, believes that with longevity comes true fan loyalty – as they buy into the sporting journey.
All three are in second-round action over the weekend, with three-time UK winner Higgins taking on Thailand’s Sunny Akani, and two-time champion Williams facing Anthony Hamilton.
World No3 O’Sullivan said: “In tennis you look at Federer, Nadal and Djokovic who are such greats and have dominated the sport for so long – and in the recent ATP Finals you didn’t have two of them.
“They are really hard to replace, you almost can’t replace Federer and Nadal, they are one-offs for their sport for what they have achieved.
“For someone to match that they have got to be not only in that sport for 20 years, but also winning for those 20 years.
“People follow those players not just for the odd match but for their whole career, you’re on a journey with them and that comes over time.
“So it is a new era for tennis, and will there ever be again a time when two or three players break away and are that much better and do it in that style.
“So absolutely I can see why people have occasionally made that comparison to snooker and myself, John Higgins and Mark Williams.
“People love the longevity, and how long you’ve been at it. They come up to you and say ‘When I was a student at university I started following you then’.
“And though you have never met them, they have been following your career for 30 years. That is important to have that relationship.
“And maybe yes, when we stop it could be similar and have some sort of effect on the game, or leave a hole - especially if we all left around the same time.”
O’Sullivan, who lost all five of his finals last season, has seen Scot Higgins suffer this term – losing the last three major finals in a row coming in to the UK.
And the Rocket claims that becoming a little more relaxed and laid-back in the style of Williams might also help Higgins.
Higgins bared his soul claiming he could no longer handle the pressure at the top level after losing the English Open final 9-8 to Neil Robertson having led 8-6.
O’Sullivan added: “Maybe it did feel a bit uncomfortable at one moment seeing John bare his soul like that.
“But listen, I do feel that you almost can’t try that hard or care to that degree. If John is putting that amount of effort in and it is taking so much out of him that can no longer be philosophical about it, it will be more difficult.
“Look at Mark Williams. Same age, but such a different mindset. He’d laugh at himself and say ‘Oh, look at me, I was 8-6 up and I’ve lost 9-8 again, my bottle’s gone!’
“When you’re younger you want to graft it out always, but at some point maybe at our age you have to learn to enjoy it, take what you can from it, don’t read too much into results.
“Pick and choose your battles, you can’t win them all. If you want to win majors then you might have to sacrifice going deep in the some of the others.
“It’s about pacing yourself and realising that at this stage of my career, John’s career, Mark’s career, you can’t do it every week. Nobody can, especially us older ones.
“I would say for sure I was more like John when I was younger, and then in maybe the last 10 years I have been a lot more like Mark.
“As I have got older my health and fitness and quality of life has just become relatively more important. I wouldn’t play in a tournament if I had to sacrifice something else I really valued.”
Ronnie O’Sullivan is an ambassador for Eurosport, who will be covering the UK Championship from November 23-December 5