Walker The Talker: Reigning Champion Ronnie O’Sullivan Out To Defend His Crown

The Rocket is attempting to finally match Stephen Hendry as a seven-time King of the Crucible
11:00, 16 Apr 2021

And cue Ronnie O’Sullivan. 10am Saturday morning. Central Sheffield. Centre stage. Where snooker’s most decorated player was born to perform.

Tradition dictates that the first session at every edition of the Betfred World Snooker Championship always features the start of the reigning champion’s quest to successfully defend their crown, so this weekend is not to be missed.  

There is surely no finer way to start the 45th edition of this iconic 17-day event than with the Rocket’s attempt to finally match Stephen Hendry as a seven-time King of the Crucible.

It’s pretty much the only record the 37-time ranking event winner hasn’t taken from the Great Scot. Yet, for many years it looked as if Hendry’s finest achievement was too far out of reach, even for the mercurial talent from Essex.

His back-to-back victories in 2012 and 2013 took him to a famous five world titles and brought discussion of Hendry’s seven into the conversation, but Mark Selby’s recovery from 10-5 down to deny O’Sullivan a sixth crown the following year made it still feel too far away.

Up until last year, the furthest the world number two progressed since that runner-up finish in 2013 was the quarter-finals, against the eventual champion Stuart Bingham in 2015 and Ding two years later in 2017.

Whispers began around the circuit that perhaps 17 days was too long for an O’Sullivan, who was advancing into his mid-forties. That maybe a week of excellence and top form would be the limit of his stamina and endurance, but we are talking about arguably one of the fittest players in the top 16 and, as it turned out, 2013 was not destined to be his final year to come and conquer all in Yorkshire.

While the world was just beginning to come to terms with COVID and as we emerged from the first lockdown, it was obvious snooker, along with every other sport, was going to have to get used to the concept of performing behind closed doors. For a player of O’Sullivan’s popularity, a case could be made for that being a help and a hindrance and, to varying degrees, it’s probably both in equal measure.

Of course hearing his name being roared by 900 vociferous fans must get his adrenaline pumping, but at the same time that fervent support is always accompanied by pressure and expectation. And nowhere does he feel that more acutely than at the annual World Championship in Sheffield.

I’ve been around him enough here over the last decade to realise that the attention on him is relentless from the moment he arrives in the city, and the first time I saw him in the dining room at last year’s champs I knew if he didn’t win it, he would come very close. He looked more relaxed than I’d ever seen him before at the Crucible. There was a carefree enjoyment in his demeanour and that was an ominous sign for his opponents.

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For Ronnie, last summer accidentally presented the perfect platform from which to mount a title run. No agents, no ticket requests, no stream of people queuing for selfies and autographs. He was left alone to play snooker and go for a few runs. He could not have wished for a better scenario.

As a result of the lack of crowds he stayed in the nearest hotel to the venue (which he would never do under normal circumstances) and walked to the Crucible across a deserted Tudor Square each day, sauntering in without a care in the world. The backdrop couldn’t have been better for him.

I think joining Steve Davis and Ray Reardon as a six-time world champion after victory over Kyren Wilson in the final meant a huge amount to O’Sullivan, who will always be able to look back on last year’s world title as one of his finest achievements. He’s brought that form into this season, storming his way to five major finals. Quite some accomplishment for a man in his mid-forties.

That he hasn’t won any of them is actually a record for a single season and one historical mark he probably wishes he didn’t own, but is it a cause for concern among his fans? I don’t think so.

The fact he’s reached that number of finals proves he’s still a danger man, even though he’s now closer to 50 than he is to 40, and there are valid reasons as to why he finished runner-up on each occasion.

Trump is just too good for everyone at the moment and that’s why he won the Northern Ireland Open final in November. Selby was back to his best at the Scottish Open in December and was out for some revenge after the World Championship semi-final defeat to Ronnie that summer.

In February, Jordan Brown played the snooker of his life against the Rocket at the Welsh Open, as did John Higgins a week later at the Players Champs, while Neil Robertson would have beaten anyone in the Tour Champs final last month, producing a level of snooker no-one else (even at their best) could have outscored.  

So what of his chances then in 2021, could he match Hendry’s crowning moment in the sport from 1999? After such a consistent season you wouldn’t bet against it, but two of the top seeds who have beaten him this season are in his half of the draw, so there are some potentially mouth-watering matches against both Higgins and Selby before he contemplates an eighth final.

One step at a time as always for O’Sullivan, who has surprisingly endured four first round exits in the 28 years he has already appeared at sports spiritual home.

One thing we do know for certain - with the crowds back, they will roar for him once more and having seen him come so close in so many finals already this season, every single one of his supporters would be in seventh heaven if he somehow produces another famous run. The opening morning can’t come soon enough.

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