At the age of 42, Ronnie O’Sullivan enjoyed arguably the best season of his 26-year career in 2017/18. And when it comes to the debate on who is snooker’s greatest ever player, his recent success has shifted opinion firmly in his favour.
O’Sullivan first threatened to quit snooker when he was a teenager, and has done so repeatedly ever since. As recently as January, at the Masters, he talked of missing the World Championship in order to film a TV show in Australia.
In the end the Rocket did compete in snooker’s biggest event and although his bid for the 2018 Crucible crown was derailed after an ill-tempered last 16 clash with Ali Carter, few would write off his chances of picking up a momentous sixth world title in the future.
Throughout the season, O’Sullivan appeared to enjoy snooker as much as he ever has. He held the posture of a man who has nothing to prove, with a vast array of titles under his belt. While younger men strive under the pressure of establishing themselves inside snooker’s pantheon of greatness, O’Sullivan sits untouchable at the high altar.
He may downplay his ambition to take those records he doesn’t already hold (“records mean nothing to me” is his mantra) but the pursuit of those achievements is surely, deep down, what drives the satisfaction he finds in playing well and winning. The thrill is in the chase.
And how his fans around the world were thrilled in his brilliance last season, watching a sporting talent – who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods – in full flow. The Rocket clocked up more centuries in a season than ever before, more prize money and more ranking titles.
The man O’Sullivan has – many would argue – dislodged at the top of the pantheon is Stephen Hendry. During his golden spell in the 1990s Hendry set the bar for his most treasured record very high – winning the World Championship seven times. The Scot also set the benchmark for the most ranking titles, at 36. The latter – if O’Sullivan maintains his current form – will surely be broken soon. The former might prove much more difficult to match.
Judd Trump is tipped by many as the natural heir to O’Sullivan and he is comfortably the sport’s second biggest box office draw. He doesn’t doubt O’Sullivan’s motivation.
“Ronnie wants to break every record over the next three or four years and I think he is likely to get them the way he is playing,” said Trump. “He’s getting a bit older and I think he wants to target those records and beat them before he retires. He says he’s not really bothered, but I think that’s the only aim he has left in snooker. If he does get to seven or eight world titles, that will be enough for him.”
Eurosport commentator and journalist David Hendon has seen both Hendry and O’Sullivan win world titles throughout his career working in the sport, from his role as the WPBSA Press Officer to his current job in the commentary box.
Hendon said: “You can argue who the greatest ever is until the cows come home, and people do of course. A lot of it depends on what criteria you use. On titles, notably world titles, Hendry is still ahead. However O’Sullivan has one thing Hendry did not: longevity. Stephen retired at 43 because he felt he could no longer compete at the top. Ronnie is 42 and won five ranking titles last season. He is a long way from finished and his continuing reign at the top of the sport is unprecedented.
“I suppose in this way they are snooker’s version of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Beatles did it all in a decade, the Stones are still going. The point is, they were both great, and it will take a long time before anyone threatens their status as the two greatest players ever.”
Commentator and snooker journalist Phil Yates believes that you must broaden your measures, to allow for talent and ability to be part of the conversation.
“As Hendry’s records have tumbled, so the debate has become ignited but it is all a matter of criteria,” said Yates. “Hendry has won more world titles at the Crucible and more world ranking tournaments than O’Sullivan. If you believe greatness is based purely on achievement, your vote still has to go to the Scot.
“However, if your definition of greatness is wider, incorporating other attributes such as longevity, talent, break-building, entertainment value and the way he moves the needle, it simply has to be O’Sullivan.
“He is top of the all-time century and maximum break makers list by a distance, there are over 24 years between his first and most recent ranking title and he heads the all-time prize money list. If you asked me this question five years ago, I would not have hesitated to say Hendry is the greatest. Now, I cannot be swayed from the view that O’Sullivan has surpassed him.”
Tale of the Tape
O’Sullivan v Hendry
5 World Championship Titles 7
7 Masters Titles 6
6 UK Championship Titles 5
18 Triple Crown Titles 18
33 Ranking Titles 36
948 Century Breaks 775
14 Maximum Breaks 11
Most centuries last season
Ronnie O’Sullivan 74
Judd Trump 74
John Higgins 58
Neil Robertson 57
Most ranking titles in one season
5 – Stephen Hendry 1990/91
5 – Ding Junhui 2013/14
5 – Mark Selby 2016/17
5 – Ronnie O’Sullivan 2017/18
O’Sullivan’s prize money last season
Hong Kong Masters – runner-up plus high break: £55,000
China Championship – quarter-finals: £18,000
English Open – Winner: £70,000
International Championship – Last 64: £4,000
Champion of Champions – runner-up: £50,000
Shanghai Masters – Winner plus high break: £153,000
Northern Ireland Open – last 32: £3,500
UK Championship – Winner: £170,000
Scottish Open – quarter-finals: £10,000
Masters – quarter-finals: £25,000
World Grand Prix – Winner: £100,000
Welsh Open – quarter-finals: £10,000
Players Championship – Winner plus high break: £130,000
World Championship – last 16: £27,500