Ronnie O’Sullivan’s latest instalment of his hate-love affair with snooker has been the subject of much debate within the game, compounded as it was by his inability to emotionally reset himself following his sabbatical from the table and a crowning as world champion that gave the fullest possible exposure to his discordant feelings towards his own sport. However, those concerned with the image of snooker need not fear; O’Sullivan’s frank and fascinating portrait of a man struggling to negotiate the vicissitudes of his own temperament is a resounding testament to the drama and poetry of sport.
Instead of reading with dismay negative connotations into his talk of “snooker not [being] for [him]” or how he can’t “keep putting [himself] through being unhappy”, the game’s well-wishers should treat these as articulations of the timeless, exquisitely cathartic negotiation between the blessing of a sportsman’s talent and the burden of his temperament. When O’ Sullivan, following a flat opening four frames, missed a simple red in his 2008 semi-final with Stephen Hendry and walked off, the initial reaction on his face to that error spoke volumes to the expectations human beings put on their talent, and the subsequent pressure that can swallow them whole if they allow the dam to break. O’Sullivan raised himself from the table ashen-faced, shook his head in an entirely instinctual expression of mingled frustration and self-loathing, and called it quits; his dam had broken, and so was he. Off he walked, leaving a nonplussed and aghast Hendry to also shake his head, collect his cues and walk off an unsatisfied winner.
Yet the regular sports viewers among us would have recognised that fury and frustration O’ Sullivan felt at his sport at that moment as a necessary component of the fierce desire of all artists to produce something of the sort of soaring quality that returns an intangible, almost spiritual satisfaction to its owner ; without this frustration at the immense difficulty involved in producing such virtuoso performances at one’s beck and call, the satisfaction accrued on the rare occasions on which it all falls sweetly into place would also be non-existent. The drama of sport owes much to these raw depictions of the psychological struggles that consume most human beings, whether it lies in O’Sullivan’s inability to cope with the frustration of inevitable dips in his flawless snooker exhibitions, or Luis Suarez’s primal, subconscious urge to bite Branislav Ivanovic following a perceived injustice, or Sergio Garcia’s collapse on the 17th hole of the Players’ Championship at Sawgrass under the knowledge that he could best Tiger Woods in a high-profile battle and surmount the mental hurdles that have haunted him throughout his career, or Richard Gasquet’s tendency to only unfurl his full repertoire of shot-making artistry when he has built a lead and the pressure has subsided.
Dr Steve Peters, the psychologist charged with exorcising Luis Suarez’s demons, has described how human beings struggle to overcome the negative emotions weighing them down as they are often unable to perceive the root causes of those emotions, yet the transparent depiction of this inner struggle through sporting contests is vital and compelling theatre. There are lessons to be learned in Adam Scott’s recovery from a traumatic abdication of his grasp on the British Open Claret Jug at the death, to win the Masters in a nerve-wracking play-off this year, or even the fact that O’Sullivan’s frustration stems from engagement with the highest forms of creative endeavour through the medium of snooker. Sport is a distilled microcosm of the struggles of human life, in which the goals to be attained are clearer and more morally laudable, making the efforts of the protagonists attempting to accomplish them more open to evaluation and reliable as sources of inspiration. Which politician’s success or failure, built on the back of wider forces than himself, can ever be regarded as sincerely or purely as that of the sportsman struggling to overcome his own person to achieve something he knows to be of intangible, immeasurable wealth?
In this respect, O’Sullivan has rendered a great service to snooker by placing it in that hallowed club of sports which by their nature demand the greatest engagement of human talent and spirit from their protagonists, and which carry stories of miraculous successes and heart-wrenchingly heroic failures that will continue to enthrall for generations to come.