Want to feel old? We are now as far away from Ronnie O’Sullivan winning his first UK Championship title as that final was from the JFK assassination.
Thirty years have fallen away in a blizzard of pots, breaks, titles, controversies, soundbites and sublime moments enshrined forever in snooker folklore.
Where were you when O’Sullivan became the youngest winner of a ranking event?
He went into the 1993 UK Championship as a 17-year-old playing in only his second season on tour. He had made a significant impact in his rookie campaign by winning 74 of his first 76 matches, reaching a ranking tournament quarter-final and climbing to 51st in the world rankings from a circuit comprising 700 professionals.
Even so, he was very much a boy in a man’s world. This was the era of Stephen Hendry’s rivalry with Jimmy White. Steve Davis was still winning titles. John Parrott was at his best. Younger talents like James Wattana, Peter Ebdon, Ken Doherty and Alan McManus were making a splash. Old stagers such as Dennis Taylor and Terry Griffiths were still in the top 16.
Snooker, though it may not have recognised it at the time, was in a period of transition. The golden days of the 1980s had given way to the more driven 1990s, with ambitious younger players determined to upset the previous order. In the vanguard of change was the teenage O’Sullivan, still a raw talent but a considerable talent at that.
In 1993, Bill Clinton was in the White House, John Major in No.10. The Grand National had two false starts. Phones were used to make calls. Tweets were still what birds did. Meatloaf was No. 1 in the singles chart, shortly to give way to Mr. Blobby. Britpop couldn’t come soon enough.
At Preston Guild Hall, the usual suspects gathered in cold and dark November. Away from the snooker, Graham Taylor resigned after a calamitous tenure as England manager. On the table, a new reign was to begin.
O’Sullivan had garnered a growing following, but potential is one thing, realising it quite another. In the background was the trauma of his father, Ronnie senior, being sent to prison. His world turned upside down, it was to the familiar sanctuary of the snooker table that he turned.
He defeated McManus 9-5 and survived a decider against Nigel Gilbert to reach the televised phase, which in those days was limited to 16 players. This was a taste of the big time, a sink or swim challenge to the precocious youngster’s temperament.
Doherty was his opponent in the last 16. They had practised together when Ronnie was a boy at Ilford Snooker Centre. The Irishman had won the world junior and amateur titles and was a ranking event winner by the time they met in Preston, but O’Sullivan raced into a 6-2 lead and converted it into a 9-5 victory.
Next up was his boyhood hero, Davis, to whom he was shyly introduced as 10-year-old in a Chinese restaurant shortly after Davis had lost the 1986 World Championship final to Joe Johnson. Ronnie senior informed the then world No. 1 that his boy would one day be world champion. Imagine how many times he had heard that over the years.
But Davis saw evidence of the potential up close as O’Sullivan pulled away from 4-4 to beat him 9-6. He was into the semi-finals, where once again defying a gulf in experience he defeated Welshman Darren Morgan 9-5.
Hendry was the last line of defence against this inspired usurper. This was the ultimate test. Hendry was reigning world champion, reigning Masters champion, and already a two-time winner of the UK Championship. He was world No. 1 by a mile.
Ronnie O’Sullivan (L) and Stephen Hendry in 2008
Image credit: Getty Images
They walked out to a packed house at the Guild Hall with Hendry hoping to exploit understandable nerves from the challenger. In fact, O’Sullivan went 2-0 up with a century. Hendry hit back with a century of his own to level at 2-2 but was 6-2 down after the opening session, O’Sullivan helped by a second century and a black ball steal.
Trophies are handed out at night. This was the session which really mattered. Hendry won two of the first three to close to 7-4 but something about the evening was meant to be. At 9-6, first chance he got, O’Sullivan made 85. Hendry rose to shake his hand. The crowd rose to acclaim him. The world sat up and took notice.
The player nicknamed the ‘Rocket’ had lift-off, for good and bad. Propelled into sporting stardom at a tender age, he became a magnet for sponsorship endorsements but also media scrutiny. The spotlight is a seductive place but can be blinding. His personal life was treated as a soap opera, there to entertain the masses. He lived it and sometimes it was too much.
Addiction and self-sabotage was O’Sullivan’s way of coping with the turmoil around him. His snooker could still be dazzling but he constantly walked on a cliff-edge.
Over time, he found some stability thanks to running, Dr. Steve Peters, and his partner Laila. And despite various threats to walk away, never has done. If anything, he is snooker’s great survivor: still capable of great performances, still relevant and, most importantly, still here.
So what of O’Sullivan in 2023? He goes into this year’s UK Championship
as world No. 1, itself a remarkable fact on the 30th anniversary of his first triumph.
However, he has already withdrawn from five tournaments this season. He did win the invitational Shanghai Masters in September but ran out of steam in each of the ranking events in which he has participated.
O’Sullivan is nursing tennis elbow and has spoken of the strain on his mental health now travelling has been increased by the return of the circuit to China. His form is patchy compared to the likes of Judd Trump and Mark Allen. And yet…There is always the feeling that a big performance is still in there. What better way to mark the anniversary than with an eighth UK title triumph?
In 1993, a star was born – 30 years on, he shines as brightly as ever. Many have tried to untangle the Ronnie O’Sullivan psyche but maybe the real appeal is that he remains an enigma three decades on.
Once it’s revealed how a magic trick is achieved, it is no longer special. We want to see the magic. And, in O’Sullivan, we still do.
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