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7 May 2013

O’Sullivan’s cue to learn from sporting elite

Snooker’s enigma ought to make hay while the sun shines.

By Cameron Sharpe

Ronnie O’Sullivan is a difficult man to please.

Despite cruising to the most impressive world title triumph of his career, O’Sullivan’s favourite moment during his fortnight in Sheffield appeared to come when a member of the audience broke wind during his semi-final win over Judd Trump. 

Such has been the defending champion’s outward malaise and comprehensive route to the title, the BBC have struggled to sell snooker’s crown jewel this year.

Perhaps it will become the Englishman’s magic trick. Each year he will walk away from the sport only to emerge seemingly unprepared and undercooked each April to lift snooker’s most coveted prize.

On the other hand, perhaps the enigmatic cueman has potted his last ball on the world stage. He may cite boredom or deeper psychological problems for his exit but as sporting legacy goes, it is hard not to think that the 37-year-old is going out with so much more in his locker.

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It is difficult to understand the driving force behind O’Sullivan’s threats.

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If he thinks exiting now will give his snooker epitaph an added allure and mystery, he ought to reconsider fast; Memories of the sporting media and fans alike are spitefully short.

Sporting history is littered with sporting icons who have seen their bodies pack in long before their desire to compete at the highest level. It seems unnatural for O’Sullivan to walk away from a sport he can still dominate.

He only needs to look over his shoulder at the punditry box for an example of how fragile periods of dominance can be- even in a sport where there are fewer physiological factors in a competitor’s decline.

Stephen Hendry, who has been enjoying his first year away from the tables at the Crucible since his retirement last year, won seven world titles before his 31st birthday. Despite seeming set for years of further supremacy, he never won snooker’s top prize again.

After another 13 years of seemingly hacking round the circuit searching for enjoyment and consistency, the Scotsman retired, safe in the knowledge that he had squeezed everything he could out of his career.

O’Sullivan seems yet to suffer this decline or gain this clarity or certainty.

Bjorn Borg is the oft cited example of a sportsman to have retired too early, and returned after years of regret, only to find he could no longer contend with the sport he left behind.  

But he is by no means alone.

As recently as last week, O’Sullivan could have taken time out from his quarter-final romp against Stuart Bingham to appreciate the significance of Barcelona’s 3-0 Champions League reversal at the hands of Bayern Munich.

 What he might have noted, apart from the eye-watering size of Munich’s victory, was the reluctance of the Spanish giants to select a front-line team with the talismanic Lionel Messi left on the bench for the whole of the second leg.

The Catalans- chasing their third Champions League triumph in five years- had nothing to play for domestically, having all but sewn up their league triumph, yet coach Tito Vilanova seemingly decided to throw in the towel before the second leg started.

The selection, and resulting performance, smacked of petulance and the decision to forego the chance of chasing down Munich’s 4-0 lead from the first leg was bewildering.

As it so happens, there would have been little Messi could have done to change the outcome of the game but it was illuminating that the Spanish team- perhaps coming to terms with the end of their own period of dominance- elected not to seek a final encore.  

It is hard not to see a similar petulance in O’Sullivan’s work. He plays his sport with an amazing sense of carefree abandon, yet expects to enjoy every moment of his experience. Perhaps he is simply an adulation junkie and will return for another hit next year, but if he follows through on his threats to pack away his cue and take a rest, it will have to rank as one of the most mind-boggling retirement decisions in sporting history.