Ronnie O’Sullivan realised how much he missed snooker when admitting to himself he would rather lose 10-0 in today’s opening match of the Betfair World Championship than never again pick up a cue in anger.
The 37-year-old reigning world champion has been in self-imposed exile since collecting his fourth world title at the Crucible 12 months ago.
The famous Sheffield theatre has seen much drama over the years, but few to raise the cheers which will greet O’Sullivan this morning when he steps from behind the curtains for his first-round match against Scotland’s Marcus Campbell.
“I see this as the start of a bigger picture,” said O’Sullivan. “Three or four months ago I was sitting there and I thought I’d take getting beat 10-0 in Sheffield just to be back playing, rather than not doing anything.
“I was a bit bored just going out for lunches and chilling out. Getting back to playing, whether I win or lose, shows just how much it is a part of my life.
“Just to play is better than not playing.
“I don’t know how difficult it will be. I usually just get on with it. The only pressure I put on myself is the pressure to win and succeed. I’m used to being written off and coming back. I am up for it. I love the challenge, I know what I’m capable of.
“I know how good I am. I hope a few people do write me off because that’ll make me stronger.”
After being out of the game for a year, O’Sullivan is not worried about the prospect of embarrassing himself upon his return to the Crucible, the scene of so many of his greatest moments.
“I’ve embarrassed myself many times. I get used to that,” he said.
“I’ve been prepared and ready for major events before, gone out there and felt embarrassed by my performances. I am not worried about that.
“There is no pressure on me. The most important thing is to have an aim in my life.
“Snooker has always given me that. This is a chance to get a bit of routine in my life. I was so bored sometimes.
“I moaned about the pressures and not playing well, but I thought two or three months ago ‘I’d take that back like a shot now’, so hopefully I won’t be as hard on myself.
“Hopefully I will enjoy it more and enjoy playing, rather than putting myself under pressure in tournaments to succeed.”
O’Sullivan is not making any promises on how long his return to playing on the Tour will last. But he does believe if he can finally sort out long-running ‘personal issues’ that he can add to his crowded silverware cabinet.
Could his personal problems return to trouble him? “They possibly could,” he admitted. “That’s the reality of it. I can’t make any guarantees.
“All I know is that I have to make a start. I have tried to put everything on hold, get things resolved.
“Hopefully, they will be resolved. If they are not then I will re-address it and see if I am still capable of taking on a commitment of being a professional sportsman and play.
“As a professional sportsman you want your private life to be settled and that hasn’t been the case over the last three years.
“I had things to deal with in my personal life and that’s why I pulled out.
“I have not played on any match tables for a year, so I’m going into the unknown. I will embrace it, there is a bigger picture.
“I had two lean years for various reasons then I came back stronger. As long as my mind is okay I’m sure it will only be a matter of time before I get back into the winner’s enclosure.
“I need to make a return. I need to grow some shoulders, roll my sleeves up and have a go. I will give it my best and see what the outcome is.”
O’Sullivan – who is writing a book “to get my side of the story out there” – was a spectator at the Masters in January, the first public sign that he was missing a sport which had been his life from an early age.
He refuses to divulge what he has been doing for the last 12 months – “You don’t want to know, mate. Trust me, it has been good, though. Very good” – but victory against Campbell today and it will seem like ‘The Rocket’ never went away.
“I knew I had to make a decision. I couldn’t stay out for too long, didn’t want to fall off the Tour completely,” he said. “I knew in the back of my mind that snooker is my job and my life and that at some point I had to make a comeback.
“I have been detached from snooker. I watched a little bit. Other than that I have not had much involvement.
“Boredom was a big factor. I missed travelling. I didn’t realise how much a part of my life it was. I missed the playing.
“There was a point that came and I thought ‘even in my darkest moments of snooker I’ll probably take them back now’.
“Four months ago I would’ve done anything to play. Would’ve played in January if I could have, but I had to have entered the tournaments in October.
“Hopefully I have a different perspective. Hopefully I will look back on it... it’s nice to be hitting a few balls and hopefully I will pick up a few trophies on the way. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t.”
O’Sullivan’s four Crucible titles leave him three short of Stephen’s Hendry’s record of seven world championships.
Steve Davis – himself a six-time Crucible winner – believes O’Sullivan will struggle to beat Hendry’s record.
Davis, aged 55, was 32 when he won the last of his six titles in 1989.
He believes the most O’Sullivan could win is another two world crowns, but still believes the champion starts as favourite in Sheffield.
“He’s doing a hell of a lot better than me in terms of how late in his life he won them,” said Davis. “I stopped winning the World Championship in 1989, I was 32.
“You would imagine at some stage that he would start to fail, players have started to struggle and hit a bit of a wall at the age of 40.
“It seems to happen at that period of time. Ronnie, though, is so fit, and such an exceptional player, that it may not apply to him. But it’s applied to a lot of great players, Stephen Hendry included.
“Also you start to get down about it, not happy with how you play in the arena, nothing like you play in practice.
“Ronnie’s got a few years left, he could catch me up. But I think it would be extremely tough for him to go on and beat Stephen Hendry’s record.
“But the only way he is going to do that is by playing in the event. He’s not the same type of animal as Hendry or John Higgins, but he can still win the World Championship at a canter.
“You would still have to make him favourite for the event.”
O’Sullivan beat Ali Carter 12 months ago at the Crucible, but has played little competitive snooker since.
To stay competing at the highest level, Davis believes O’Sullivan cannot afford just to turn up at the Crucible each year without regular tournament play throughout the year.
“He has to compete properly,” stressed Davis. “If he was only to play one event every year (the World Championship) his brain would stop thinking like a snooker player.
“Short-term he can probably get away with it, but if you maintain that and only play in one or two events a year – and the rest of the time you are mentally switched off – I think you would find it harder and harder as the years went by to switch your mind back on again.
“He will be able to switch the switch on and get up to competitive speed very quickly this year, that won’t be a problem.
“Everybody likes watching Ronnie play at the table, even the opposition players like watching him play.
“That’s an unusual thing because most players don’t like to watch snooker, but they will watch him.
“I think it’s great to have the world champion defending his title at the Crucible.
“I think that would be a disappointment if that was ever the case.”