Ronnie O’Sullivan


“My girlfriend describes me as a bit of a Hamlet !”
Ronnie O’Sullivan announces with an excitable grin, as he settles down with a cup of tea in the bar of Breaks Snooker Club in Ilford.
Coming from him, at first you might think it’s a piece of rhyming slang, but he knows exactly what the entails.

“Apparently Hamlet gets very high and he gets very down,” he enthuses, evidently unconcerned by any parallels. “A bit of a Jeckyll & Hyde character !”

This, it has to be said, is one of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s specialist subjects. It was, after all, O’Sullivan himself who best summed up the complicated, colourful array of demons he has been wrestling with in his head when he described himself as “like a time-bomb waiting to go off.”

A glance at the collection of tabloid headlines, disciplinary problems and court appearances that he has amassed during his short career suggests that knowing about the time-bomb has not helped stop it from going off.

Now though, he hopes, this is something that has changed.

“It’s only been since the beginning of this season – the last eight months – that I’ve been feeling alright with myself really, because I’ve been suffering a little bit with depression,” he explains earnestly.

He is learning to stop tormenting himself trying to work out why he had played well or badly.
“I would beat myself up about it endlessly, going round in circles. I’ve managed over the past 8 months to sort of balance myself. In the past, if my snooker wasn’t good, I’d go into more of a state of depression. And if my snooker WAS good, I’d be on these extremely big highs. So people must have been thinking, ‘bloody hell ! The geezer’s a bit of a Hamlet….”

As he plays the game then, in person Ronnie O’Sullivan is nothing if not unpredictable. The last thing I had expected was to find him casually, even confidently, discussing his depression, his girlfriend, Hamlet…

“I’ve been going to the theatre quite a bit really,” he continues. “Bianca went to university and she passed. She did English and French literature. She’s been taking me. I’ve seen Chicago – The Musical, Blood Brothers… Have you seen Blood Brothers ? It’s brilliant !! I’ve seen it six times. You come out feeling on a real high.”

The news that Ronnie O’Sullivan – the putative bad boy of snooker and Jack The Lad tearaway of the tabloids – is fond of the odd night at the theatre must be the biggest shock to hit the sporting world since Tony Adams revealed that he was taking piano lessons.

Currently ranked number four in the world, O’Sullivan is known as ‘Rocket Ronnie’ – the natural successor to “People’s Champions” Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White and Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, and the game’s most explosive talent.

Like White and Higgins before him, he is also regarded as a somewhat troubled/trouble-prone individual destined to be dogged by controversy.

His run-ins with officialdom have included throwing a bread roll at an official during a junior event, progressing to being reported for urinating on a wall, using profane language. More seriously he was fined £ 20,000 for assaulting a referee and was disqualified from one tournament for failing a drug test.

Away from the game, he is known as the player whose father is serving life imprisonment for murder and whose mother has served time for VAT offences relating to the family business, which, in a juicy twist, happens to be a string of porn shops.

From time to time, he has even talked about “going into the family business.”

“It’s a happy little business,” he tells me, “We’ve got 8 or 9 shops. Nothing in Soho at the moment. Soho’s all licensed. My mum’s been in prison. My dad’s been in prison. There was talk of saying, ‘Ronnie, you’re clean, you’d get a license’ but it wouldn’t go well with the snooker career. The sponsors wouldn’t like it.”

This is not a problem that the likes of Steve Davis have to worry about.

He has crashed his car more than once, been banned for speeding, charged with careless driving, and as recently as June last year caught drink driving in his Porsche when he was charged with refusing a urine test.

5 years ago, O’Sullivan’s public image dipped again when he became embroiled in an unseemly spat in the papers with an ex-girlfriend who claimed that O’Sullivan was refusing either to acknowledge that he was the father of her baby or to cough up a single penny to help her raise her.

Despite all this, it was nonetheless a shock when, last year, he spent 5 weeks in The Priory receiving treatment – not for drink or drug addiction as people assumed – but for depression.

“The Priory made me look at my life and think about what it’s all about,” he tells me. “I woke up one day and thought, ‘I’ve got to liven up here cos if I don’t, I’m going to lose everything. I’ll look back in a few years and think ‘I should have done things differently’. My self-esteem and my self-worth were pretty low. I wanted to do something about my depression and that was the place I was recommended to go. Being in there, I didn’t feel as I was on me own anymore.”

Like a lot of people fresh out of therapy, he sounds evangelical about the experience, but does not pretend it was easy.

“I hated it in there,” he smiles. “After three days, I walked out. It’s fucking horrible in there. It’s a shit hole. I felt like an animal in there. One of the people in there used to call me a dog. He used to say ‘you’re a dog’. They’re all quite well-spoken in there, quite well-to do – lawyers, alot of women, a couple of famous people. In comes me – effing and fucking blinding. I felt like the odd one out. But after a week or so, they all quite liked me. We all had a right
crack !”

Ask him what he was aiming for and he says simply “Enjoyment, basically. To know you can get that from within.”

By this, he means, without relying on snooker.
“Away from that competitive side, you have to sort of plan your life out, prepare for things,” he explains with the naïve certainty of a 14 year-old boy. “Off the table, I’ve lost some of the highs in my life but that’s good,” he stresses with conviction, “because it wasn’t real. I still get the highs on the table. Now and then, I get these buzzes – like Gazza meant when he said ‘when I go out on the pitch I’m at my most relaxed.’ That’s my release. No-one can touch me when I’m playing.”

The question is: what you do, or where you go, when you go walk away from that feeling back into your life.

“Off the table, I’ve had to sacrifice having fantastic highs – living at 100 m.p.h. – because the lows were so bad. I’d have nine lows to one high. Nowadays, I get my highs being confident I’m not going to be having so many bad days as before, with the lows. Not on the snooker table, in life.”

At first impression, Ronnie O’Sullivan certainly seems pretty chipper, walking in to Breaks humming a song by the modern-day master of melancholy, David Gray.

No wonder you’re depressed, I say, recommending Motown instead.
“Haha. I know ! That’s just the music I like !” he admits sheepishly. “David Gray, REM, Coldplay…My girlfriend always says to me, ‘do you listen to the words ?’ I just like the melodies.”

Still only 24, he is slimmer and trimmer than he has been – a result of less nights drinking and a regime of early morning runs.

Dressed in a black Ted Baker top, grey Nike trainers and green Mahjarishi trousers (“two hundred and fifty quid they cost and everyone’s just been taking the piss out of them”), he looks more hip, more handsome, than he does when you see him on TV in his snooker uniform of waistcoat and bow tie.

Breaks has been like a second home. Regulars at the club still remember him – years before he became one of the best players in the world – coming here as a boy with his Dad, playing standing on a box.

“I got barred from here once !” he laughs, his a cocky grin making it sound like a tough guy’s boast. “When I was about 12. It was because I used to bring my own food in. The food here is all chips and burgers. I asked for a spoon for my yoghurt and they barred me !!”

He seems surprisingly relaxed, but, ostensibly at least, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s life couldn’t really be much better at the moment.

He has had a terrific season and is not surprisingly, one of the favourites for the forthcoming World Championships at the Crucible in Sheffield in April.

Since embracing his new outlook to life, he has abandoned the laborious practice routines the other players follow and promptly won The Champions Cup (£ 100,000),
The Scottish Masters (£ 62,000), the China Open (£ 62, 000) and finished runner-up in the Grand Prix (£ 33,000).

His personal life couldn’t be better thanks to the recent reunion with the four year-old daughter Taylor-Ann that he had previously found so hard to acknowledge, and his girlfriend Bianca.

He met Bianca – in typically outrageous style – at a football match at West Ham where O’Sullivan was not watching, but playing in a charity match.

“Bianca was sitting over in the crowd,” he grins. “I’m running down the wing and I thought ‘aye-aye, that’s a bit of alright over there’. So I sort of done a U-turn, spun back into the crowd, and said ‘do you want to go out for a
drink ?”

They have been together nine months – already a long relationship for him.
“I’m never there am I ? I’ve had one, two, three, four girlfriends in my whole life since I was 16.”

One of these was Sally, the mother of his daughter.
“I saw her for a few months. Stopped going out with her and about 4 months later, I found out she was pregnant. I couldn’t believe it.”

In October 1997, in a piece in the Daily Star (“GOTCHA BY THE BALLS”), Sally condemned him for denying his parentage, and “hanging on to his millions”, refusing to pay a penny for Taylor’s maintenance until the CSA threatened to get a court order forcing him to have a DNA test.

“I needed to know it was my baby,” he says now. “She could’ve been shagging someone else for I knew. And I’d be there – paying for someone else’s baby. When I found out, we went to court and I said, “she wants this, she wants that. She can have it. The only thing is, she doesn’t go to the papers and smear me anymore.’ I bought her a nice little house. I bought her a car.”

He summed up his attitude in one interview saying
“I didn’t want a kid. I said to her I wasn’t interested in any kids. I’m living the life I want to live – being a single man.”

But last year Ronnie decided he wanted to see his daughter .
“It was something that was on my mind. I’d stopped going out so much. I realised, I’ve got a little daughter. She’s mine. She’s my making. I want to see her. She’s going to grow up and be thinking, ‘where’s my Dad. He never came to see me.’”

Taylor-Ann’s mother though was not so keen.
“Her mum didn’t want me to see her. She said, ‘You’re very hot and cold. You’ve been gone four years. The baby’s great. She doesn’t know about you and I don’t want you to mess her head up.’ I understood that but I wanted to be there.”

Talking about the experience, his whole face changes, as if all his worries disappear.

“It’s only been since January. I’ve seen her four times now. I try to see her once a week, spend some time with her, which is lovely. It’s been so nice. She looks like her mum. She’s got my lips ! And she’s got my little bit of bossiness in her. She’s a lovely, beautiful little girl.”

The change of heart coincided with, but was not a direct result of, his time in The Priory.
“Being in The Priory might have cleared a lot of baggage out of the way but, to be honest, I didn’t even mention it in there. I was just going on about my Dad, my mum, the snooker…”

Ah yes, the snooker: the game that so many men would secretly love to be able to play like O’Sullivan if only for one frame in their lives. The game that Ronnie O’Sullivan has made millions from that he was born to play, and his bete noire. Yes, Ronnie O’Sullivan is The Snooker Player Who Hates Snooker.

It is a lovely sunny day in Ilford, but at 10am, as the first players arrive, the cleaner walks around the room closing the curtains shut.

“Look ! Look !” O’Sullivan whispers playfully. “Snooker players ! Look at ‘em. Look how depressed they are.”
As verdicts go, coming from him, this is pretty damning.
“They have to close the curtains cos you can’t really see the balls,” he continues with pantomime malice. “You have to be in that doom-and-gloom atmosphere – otherwise it’s not right.”

Ronnie looks as if he hasn’t so much fun in ages.
“Look at this bloke. How depressed is he ?! He could end up in a strait jacket in a nut house. That’s what happens to snooker players. When he first started coming up here, he was quite a normal person. Now, I nick-name him Psycho because he’s totally gone off his head. One fella missed the blue off the spot and he got up and head-butted the blue spot. Cut his head open. That’s what snooker can do to you. It’s like a drug. I don’t want to end up like that.”

He continues like this, heatedly, for several minutes,
as if he had uncovered a government conspiracy about aliens and was desperate for me to believe him.
“If I put you in a room full of snooker players, you’d probably pick out 4 or 5 that are sane and 900 of them totally nuts !”

Ronnie O’Sullivan is smiling but he is not joking. He is laughing but he is not happy.

Like many young tennis players or golfers, playing the game that he used to regard as a joy, a gift, has become first a job, and then a grind.

Snooker makes him angry, frustrated, and depressed. It hounds Ronnie O’Sullivan, haunts him.
“It is on my case, 24-7” he admits. “It’s like a stalker.”

At the end of the interview, he confides that he has spent a large part of the last hour thinking “oh no, in a minute they’re going to make me go over to that table to do the photos.”

He is probably the only player in the game’s elite who loathes practising so badly that at his new flat, he does not even have his own table.
“Practising for ten hours a day, seven hours a day, three days a week, an hour a day, it doesn’t make much difference to me. It all depends on what happens on the day. I’ve had a better season this year by not practising. It throws all that dedication shit out the window.”

I ask him whether he would watch it on telly if it was on and he laughs.
“I don’t MIND watching it to be honest with you, but I fucking hate playing it. I don’t mind watching it but I FUCKING hate playing it man… I’ve spent a lot of time with Jimmy White and I do get envious when Jimmy says ‘I love the game.’ I say to myself: ‘can he be serious ? I feel like getting hold of him and wringing his neck.’”

I ask him if the problem is the lifestyle or the game itself and he struggles to explain, saying, “It’s a mixture of both really.”

He has got to the stage where he regards it with dread – describing it as a dispiriting treadmill of tedious travelling and soulless hotels, playing pointless tournaments in front of comatose audiences “sitting in the chair all day with sore feet while the other bloke is potting balls.”

“It is very dull when you see (World Number One) Mark Williams) up there and everyone’s clapping very politely. But you need them boring ones. They’re part and parcel of the snooker circuit. You look around and you think – ‘oh maybe life ain’t so bad. You think, ‘well at least I’m not like one of them’.”

He admits he doesn’t really have many friends on the tour and rarely says more than a word to players like Ken Doherty and Williams.

“Jimmy (White) is quite close to me. We’re in a business, so you’re not supposed to let people know what your weaknesses are. But for me, Jimmy’s the one person in my business that I can go to at 2 o’clock in the morning during a tournament, and go ‘I need help.’ And he’ll sit down and talk to me for an hour and a half and I’ll come out of there and I’ll feel a little bit better about myself.”

At his lowest point, he admits, he has toyed with the idea of suicide and even how he would so it.
“I’ve never harmed myself. I’ve thought about it though. I thought about, if the circumstances arise and maybe if it happened, maybe it would be a little bit of a blessing in disguise. It has got that bad. But at the moment, its not.”

He had seemed in such positive spirits, I cheerfully asked him when he last felt seriously depressed.

“When I got beat in Wales,” he says straight away, “I didn’t speak for three days. My mate dropped me off. I sat there in my flat for three days, just watched TV, cooked some dinner for meself, and sat there.”

It took me a while to register that he was talking about a tournament that had taken place the week before. A month earlier, his depression had threatened to descend when he was playing a tournament in China.
“I was there 2 weeks and I played 4 games. By the end of it, I was totally suicidal. And I won it !!” he laughs. “I was sitting there 7-1 up in the final and I was thinking, ‘get me out of here. Get me out of here.’”

He seems so happy.
“Yeah but I’m not in China. I’m not in Wales. I’m not playing snooker. I haven’t played since Wales. Wales was a real low. Sitting on me own, in me room, getting up for breakfast, looking at another snooker player. Once I’m away from snooker, things ain’t too bad. Now I’m not in that snooker environment, I’m quite happy.”

He has tried very ways to counter-act, or enjoy, ‘the snooker environment’, many of them fairly obviously classic cries for help.

He used to go on drinking binges.
“I’d be down here at half 8 in the morning, before the cleaners, on that table for two or three hours. Have a break and then I’d play for another 6, 7 hours. Then I’d think: “this is fucking pissing me off !” I’d go on little self-destruct missions every now and again. I’d go off on three or four day benders. Just to get away from it. So I didn’t have to go and play snooker.”

In 1998, in Dublin, he failed a drug-test after smoking marijuana in a night-club during a night out with his mates. When I ask him why he did it, he answers simply, “cos I was bored. I was bored out of me head. It was funny cos I KNEW I was going to get to the final, cos I was playing so well.”

More recently, he has tried golf and even bingo to foil his depression and fill his time with something other than snooker.
“I had a year or two playing golf. I was only really doing it for the sake of it cos everyone who plays snooker plays golf. But that started getting to me as well. Up until a year ago, I used to go to bingo in the evening. I used to go because I used to get home in the evening and I just wanted to get away from snooker. So I’d have to go and play bingo and two and a half hours would fly by. By the time I’d get out, I’d be home and I’d only have an hour before bed. I tell you what though: I never won a fucking thing. It used to annoy me.”

His latest idea is Art.
“I was sitting there, colouring in a book the other day with my daughter, and fucking hell ! It was so therapeutic. For two hours, right ? we didn’t speak to each other. She was colouring in, I was colouring it, we got so into it. I thought, two hours have just gone and I have not thought about anything. So I’ve just gone and bought myself a couple of painting books and art books, so hopefully I’m going to get myself onto a college course and start doing my own little bit of art and painting. That could be something away from snooker that could fill a bit of time in.”

There is a genuine pathos to the way, at the tender age of only 24, Ronnie O’Sullivan talks wistfully about the desire to re-capture the way he felt about the game “in the old days”, when he was young, travelling round the junior tournaments with his Dad.

“When you’re ten, when you wake up in the morning, you can’t wait to get on the practice table. It’s just pure snooker. I’ve tried everything to get that back. I’ve tried Paul McKenna, psychotherapists, sports psychologists.
I asked my mum about it. I said, ‘Mum, have I always been like this ? And she said, ‘nahh you was a very happy-go-lucky sort of kid. I said, ‘what’s gone wrong then ? What’s happening to me ?”

Part of the problem could be that his talent is so considerable that he just doesn’t find it stimulating.

According to Steve Davis, “Ronnie O’Sullivan has pushed the barriers of the game way beyond where Stephen Hendry took it.”

His made his first century break when he was 10. Won his first pro-am at 12. And became the youngest player to compile a maximum 147 break in competition when he was only 15 years and 97 days old. At 16, he won 74 out of his first 76 professional matches. His ability is so natural and easy that he has made century breaks playing left-handed and has been reprimanded for beating lesser opponents this way when he gets bored during a game.

“When I’m playing well, there’s no way I can get beat. So if I don’t play well, it’s like my own fault that I’ve lost.”

The game offers no challenges for him. He is adamant that whereas Jimmy White regards it as the Holy Grail, even the ambition of winning the World Championship does not really drive him.

“If I didn’t win the Worlds, well… I’ve not won it. So what ?
If I won it, it might make me feel brilliant for a week, two weeks, but after them two weeks, I’m still going to be left with ME.”

Clutching at straws, I proffer the idea of mustering the motivation from the idea of the history, or winning it for his daughter or his father.

“Nah, not really. I am me and my parents love me for what I am, and my friends like me for what I am, and, that is it really.”

His father’s situation obviously hovers over everything he does.
“I still think about him a lot. I still think, if he was out, things would be different. If he hadn’t gone away, life would be so unbelievably sweet. I had the perfect life, but life isn’t perfect. I’m having to deal with that.”

When he was young, he obviously wanted to win for his Dad, who would drive him on so passionately that when he was 12 Ronnie junior told him he was putting too much pressure on him.

“I said, ‘dad, I can’t handle you being with me anymore. He stopped coming for a year and I started winning everything.”

He was 15, playing the world amateur tournament in Bangkok, when he heard that his Dad had killed someone, stabbing a man in a fight in a nightclub. (Like a boy defending his dad in the playground, Ronnie argues vociferously that it was self-defence and that, as someone who had never been violent before, his life sentence was injustice.)

“I was in pieces. I just wanted to come home. I did play. I done my best. I won my group then got beat in the first round in the last 16. We were very close. Very close. My attitude when he first went away was, I just wanted to be there with him.”

Having served 9 years in High Security prisons, he is now a Category B prisoner but will still have to serve another 7 or 8 years.

“I go and see him about once every month-six weeks. I don’t really see him as much as I would like to. Because of the snooker. I speak to him more or less every day on the phone. I just feel sorry for my mum in a way. She’s 45. It’s the time in their life when they want to be together. Grow old together. That’s been taken away from them.”

When he was out, he says, his father “always kept me in check. When he wasn’t there, discipline went out of my life. Nowadays I have to do it myself, which is hard really.”

He bears the burden of being responsible enough to carry on playing, paying the mortgage.
“I don’t want to let the team down. My Dad’s doing an 18 year sentence and I’ve got a mum that I love very much that has been there for me. So if I pissed it all away, what sort of arsehole would I be ?”

His dilemma is that the threat of quitting is always on his mind.
“Once I drop outside the Top 16, I’ll give my cue to some kid in the front row. I’ll say ‘there you go mate. A little souvenir for you. Have a good one.’”

“I’ve kept my discipline really well this year. I think it’s important that I try and carry on doing that and be the goody-goody. But sometimes I really feel like getting that cue and tossing it into the back row, getting my bag and going ‘see ya later everybody’.”

He talks about going into “sports management, marketing, be an entrepreneur. I’d like to be an agent for football players. I know a few footballers.”

As a boy he had a trial for Spurs and he is only half joking when he says he has kept himself in shape, in case.

Then again, that week, his sports psychologist had sent him a letter about the tennis-player Jennifer Capriati, the child prodigy who had just returned to the game to win her first tournament.

“Now I’m thinking: am I suffering from burn-out too. If someone said to me ‘if you take two years off, you’ll get four years of real blinding snooker, then I’d take that.”

“Yesterday I thought ‘maybe I could have a couple of years travelling round the world. Rucksack on me back. Have me American Express in me back pocket, have a good laugh, go to Australia, go to all these lovely places, meet some nice people, and just chill out. Just ‘oh who are you ?’
‘my name’s Ronnie’. ‘I’m Bob from Texas.’ I might bump into Hugh Hefner and have a week at his gaff or something’. Maybe I might try something like that.”

As he said, the geezer’s a bit of a Hamlet.

At the end of the day, he races away into his maroon-coloured Porsche to head for home. At the gate, he slows down so I can hear what he’s listening to.
“David Gray !” he grins and screeches away – away from the snooker hall, away from the tables and the balls and the thought of playing, back to his own world, happy.


note: Ronnie O’Sullivan Senior was released from prison on November 20th 2010