Five-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan claims he is “ready to go” and start his own snooker tour.
The sport’s most popular and marketable player beat Ken Doherty 6-5 in the second round of the UK Championship in York on Sunday, but as is often the case, it was what he said afterwards which took centre stage.
For some time now the 42-year-old has railed against the sport’s tour, in particular its 128-player flat draw which often sees leading names playing first-round matches against low-ranked players in what he considers to be remote venues.
O’Sullivan remains a part of that tour, picking and choosing events and by almost everyone’s assessment remaining the greatest player in the world.
However, he says if enough players are willing to go with him, he wants to form a breakaway, more elite competition, akin to the Champions League in football.
His claims came after it was put to him that his great rival and friend, John Higgins, had said he is considering retirement.
“If he wants to play and finds the tour a bit of a grind, when you’re a top player, winning matches, travelling from here to here... I’m just waiting for four or five unhappy players, because I can’t go and play on my own. I’m ready to go,” O’Sullivan, who is the defending champion in York, told a press conference.
“If someone offered me the opportunity to play on another platform, I would be gone tomorrow. But unfortunately, with snooker, you do need an opponent.
“For me, it’s a chance to maybe get John, the Chinese kids that have been banned, I know a couple of other Chinese top-ranked players that are not happy to keep travelling over to play qualifiers at Barnsley.”
O’Sullivan is undoubtedly one of the greatest entertainers snooker has ever had. In York he could pass 1,000 career centuries and many believe his name props the sport up.
“There’s seven players... that’s what I’m hoping for, enough players that are a bit fed up and maybe want to play in a Champions League-style, where you still play for trophies, prize money, a one-table setup,” he added.
“I’ve got 15 years left in this game, I still think I can play to mid-fifties, easily, so there’s no rush.”
O’Sullivan insists he does not want to rival the current tour, which hosts tournaments all around the world, and reckons seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry could come out of retirement to join him.
“I’m not looking for an alternative tour, I’m looking for seven or eight real top-quality players, Champions League style, ATP at the O2, best of the best, every match is a final,” he said.
“Absolutely. It’s a risk. I’m looking for people.. you can’t expect people to come for nothing. Hendry’s up for it, bring him out of retirement, me, Higgins, three or four other good quality players.”
O’Sullivan says he has backers and admits players may prefer World Snooker’s tour because of the option to play at the Crucible and the Masters, but believes leading names having to play unheralded ones causes problems.
“You don’t see Leyton Orient turning up to play (Lionel) Messi at Barcelona. They might play in the FA Cup, not week in, week out. It’s demotivating,” he said.
“I think Messi would get fed up having to come out and play Huddersfield Town and Leyton Orient. He wants to play against (Cristiano) Ronaldo, hear that Champions League music. I think there’s room for two tours.”
O’Sullivan believes Higgins may have grown weary of the rigours of travelling around the world, and said in tennis Roger Federer would not be asked to “come out at Richmond Park and qualify for Wimbledon”.
O’Sullivan plays Zhou Yuelong in the third round on Monday and World Snooker has been contacted to respond to his comments.
Its chairman, Barry Hearn, did tweet O’Sullivan, in response to the player’s claim that Chinese pair Yu Delu and Cao Yupeng, banned for match-fixing on Saturday, had been harshly treated.
“Please keep such stupid comments to yourself. Your getting ridiculous and I expect better from a player of your standing. Enough,” Heard said.
Back on the table, Sheffield-based Ding Junhui battled back from 4-2 down against Matthew Selt to emerge 6-5 winner.
The 31-year-old Chinese potter – who has lived in the Steel City since he was a teenager – struggled for fluency, but managed to close out victory and faces fellow countryman Xiao Goudong in the third round.
“I tried so hard and I was happy to win,” said world No 8 Ding. “I wasn’t making big breaks so I had to find another way to win.”
But it was the end of the road for North Yorkshire’s Paul Davison. The 47-year-old from Pickering – the only Yorkshire player to emerge from a tough first-round draw – lost 6-1 to Yan Bingtao.
In a high-scoring afternoon session, Luca Brecel knocked in three consecutive centuries in his 6-5 win over Liam Highfield, while David Gilbert bagged four tons to see off Peter Ebdon 6-4.