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Ronnie O’Sullivan still winning 30 years on is an indictment of snooker’s quality

England's Ronnie O'Sullivan attends a press conference after his victory over China's Ding Junhui in the final of the 2023 MrQ UK Championship at the York Barbican in York in Northern England on December 3, 2023. England's Ronnie O'Sullivan beat China's Ding Junhui 10-7 in the final.
Ronnie O'Sullivan is still the best snooker player in the world - Getty Images/Oli Scarff

When Ronnie O’Sullivan became the oldest player ever to win the UK Snooker Championship, precisely 30 years after he had been the youngest champion in the same competition, it was rightly lauded as one of the most remarkable examples of longevity in world sport. Thirty years at the top, three decades of dazzle and delight, half a lifetime of triumph: what an extraordinary performer O’Sullivan is.

Except his magnificent win came with a significant caveat, a detail about which O’Sullivan himself has long been anxious: who else is there? Whose breath does the great man feel on the collar of his dress shirt? Where exactly is the next generation of talent pushing him aside? The fact is, snooker is becoming ever more an old man’s game. And Ronnie is simply the finest old boy around.

Back when O’Sullivan first won the UK title as an effervescent teenager, the very idea that a 48-year-old would be in contention for the big prizes was fanciful. But O’Sullivan is not alone in flying the flag for the middle-aged. Of the current top 10, he, Mark Selby, Mark Williams, Neil Robertson, John Higgins and Shaun Murphy are all in their forties, and three of the other four are in their thirties. Luca Brecel, at 28, is the youngest.

Luca Brecel
Luca Brecel, at 28, is the youngest player in snooker's top 10 - Getty Images/George Wood

For sure, snooker is a game that values experience above all qualities. It takes time to master the table, to understand the processes, to develop sufficient mental strength to be able to sit in the corner watching an opponent notch up a 100 break and not simply surrender. But for only one man in his twenties, never mind his teens, to make it to the top 10 is a real indictment.

In the new documentary about O’Sullivan, he expresses his worries about the lack of youthful talent in his sport. This is not him being arrogant, delivering the cliched not like it was in my day lament of the ageing performer. He is way too shrewd an analyst for that. No, this is a genuine concern about what will happen to the game he loves when his generation eventually tire of the relentless grind of the circuit. Although at this rate, given the lack of competition, most of them could still be winning titles in their seventies.

It is not like that in other sports. True, in 2019 Tiger Woods won the Masters at Augusta 22 years on from first donning the green jacket. But that was a remarkable one-off. He may have beaten a field of real depth but he has not been able to reproduce anything close to a performance of that calibre since. Meanwhile the golfing production line rolling out of the American college system grows if anything ever more robust. The youthful contenders pushing for the majors grows stronger by the year.

In darts too, snooker’s indoor sporting cousin, youth is everywhere. Not least in the field for the World Championships at Ally Pally this month, where 16-year-old Luke Littler is not there simply to make up the numbers.

But then, it’s easy to find a place to play darts. In snooker, it is numbers that is the issue. To develop excellence, you need a lot of people taking up the game. It also requires the game being sufficiently attractive to encourage those with talent to bother. When O’Sullivan was a boy, during school holidays his father used to leave him for the day in the local snooker club, playing for hours. For him, snooker was child care. That is not going to happen today, largely because there are precious few snooker clubs left in the country. Almost all shut down about a decade ago, unable to attract customers after the smoking ban was introduced. The best chance a youngster has of addressing a ball on a table is if his family has a snooker table at home. And how many homes in Britain have one of those to hand?

The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association insists that China is the future, that its huge popularity there will inevitably produce a whole raft of contenders. Except they have been playing snooker in China for decades and do not have anyone in the top 10. The highest-ranked is Ding Junhui at 12. And, aged 36, he hardly speaks for the future.

The silver lining in this tale of precipitous decline is that we will still be able to watch O’Sullivan in contention for the big titles. In fact, the easy things are going, he could be around at the top for another 30 years.

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