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Ronnie O'Sullivan's fresh outlook on life brings peace to his game

 

Ronnie O'Sullivan is sitting in the bar of a snooker club in London. Perched before him on the table is a series of Tupperware boxes containing various foodstuffs.

One has home-made coleslaw, another tofu sausages. A little salmon and salad, a pool of hummus, some hearty chunks of sweet potato.

"I'm on this health thing at the moment," he says. He used to run 40-45 miles a week, but because of a bone spur in his heel, he has now cut down.

"I basically just kept getting bigger and bigger. So I went to see this nutritionist, and she said you've got to cut down your portion sizes."

It will not surprise you that O'Sullivan is not the sort of character who does things by halves. Snooker is a game that not just appeals to those who are obsessive by nature, but indulges the obsession, deepens it, sucks you into a world of infinite angles and possibilities.

During his 25 years in the game, O'Sullivan has had plenty of those. And so for all the awards and the acclaim - five world championships, 28 ranking titles, the fastest 147 break of all time, some of the most thrilling snooker ever glimpsed by human eyes - the last few years have, in a way, been the story of how he got his life back.

For some years, O'Sullivan's frequent threats to retire from the sport became a sort of running joke. But in many ways, they were a cry for salvation.

Now 41 years old and a father of three, O'Sullivan says he is still enjoying his snooker, and is prepared to carry on playing. But no longer will he allow it to haunt his every waking thought.

Six years ago, O'Sullivan went to see the celebrated sports psychologist Steve Peters in an attempt to curb the fits of temper that were scarring his game. His personal life was in tatters.

He was engaged in a fraught custody battle with his ex-partner over their children.

O'Sullivan told Peters about a match against Stephen Hendry some years earlier, in which he was losing and fed up, and so simply shook hands and walked away. What O'Sullivan came to realise, with the help of Peters, was that this sort of behaviour was a kind of elite-level brain freeze, a product of the negative thoughts that would whirr through his brain.

"I was sabotaging myself," O'Sullivan says. "Allowing my mind to tell me: 'I'm s***, I'm not going to play well, I can't win this tournament, you might as well as get beat, go home.' And then I would act on that.

"Steve help me re-programme my belief system. Just bring me into reality a little bit. Not every shot can be perfect."

Peters helped O'Sullivan recalibrate his relationship with snooker, one that had become increasingly toxic over the years. It turned out he didn't really want to walk away from the game; he just needed a healthier balance in his life.

And so in the last few years, O'Sullivan has branched out in search of new ventures.

He has just finished his second novel, a London-set thriller called Double Kiss. He does some punditry for Eurosport. Most of all he takes pleasure in the simple things in life.

It is why he has a decreasing amount of time for the modern snooker circuit. "I just play on my own terms," he says. "We sign a contract with World Snooker, and within that there's a lot of things I don't agree with. Basically, they own everything to you, and they don't want to give you nothing in return, and they expect you to be grateful because you've got a chance to play snooker.

"Bottom line is: do I want to play in the tournament? If I really want to play in the tournament, I'll just put up with the contract."

You could be forgiven for thinking, perhaps, that these are the words of someone gradually falling out of love with the game. But O'Sullivan insists that snooker has never felt like a job to him. "It's more than that," he says. "It's something I'm good at. It's something I can take, near enough, to perfection."

Fairness is a word that seems to crop up again and again in the conversation.

During this summer's general election, O'Sullivan began dabbling in politics, asserting his support for Jeremy Corbyn.

"Again, it comes down to fairness," he says. "You see a lot of people out there that go without, and are finding it hard, and there's no way out. I just don't like to see that. So that's why I'm much more Labour in my way of thinking."

Was this a recent epiphany? "I was quite supportive of Ed Miliband," he replies. "I was gutted for him, because I thought he really could have made a difference. But then when Corbyn got in, I was like: 'This guy is proper alternative!' And now he's got the backing of the Labour Party."

So what comes next? In the short term, the Home Nations series, starting with the English Open in Barnsley on Monday. In the medium term, there is another world championship coming around in a few months. O'Sullivan is no longer the dominant force in the game he once was; if anyone, it is world No1 Mark Selby, who has won three of the last four world titles. But the prospect of O'Sullivan claiming a sixth world title, tying the great Steve Davis, remains irresistible.

Unsurprisingly, O'Sullivan claims to be largely uninterested in chasing records. "It's nice to have a legacy," he admits. "It's nice to leave some sort of statistics behind. But it's not the be-all and end-all for me."

Later in the evening, O'Sullivan plays Jimmy White in an exhibition match. And as they stroll around the table sharing quips and badinage, it is vaguely sobering to consider that a generation after they first appeared on the scene, these are still two of the biggest names in the sport. There are talented youngsters coming through in the game. But for some reason, none has achieved the sort of cultural resonance that White, Alex Higgins or O'Sullivan managed in their peak

So, what sort of future does he see for the sport? "I think Luca Brecel's a great talent," he says. "Judd Trump's great. But for someone to really have a big following, you need to prove that you can entertain and win."

For his part, O'Sullivan is measuring his own success not by numbers, but by feel. He has spent the last few weeks back on the practice table ahead of the winter swing, yet for some reason it wasn't quite coming together. "Three or four weeks of frustration," he says. "Getting beat in practice by players I shouldn't normally get beat by. Self-doubt creeps in."

Suddenly, something clicked. A satisfying pot, a perfect kiss, a sweet-sounding contact, and suddenly - boom - he was away. And as O'Sullivan describes how it feels to be truly in the zone, you realise why this game still sucks him in. "Bloody hell, it's a different game," he says. "You're away, flying. I'm at that place. Everything's going in. It's an easy game. And when it comes together, and you're in a tournament and you're flying, it's like… the most amazing feeling."

Watch the English Open live on Eurosport and Quest with studio analysis from Ronnie O'Sullivan and Jimmy White. Also available via the Eurosport Player

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