They say you should never meet your heroes. In my line of work, despite the kinds of sporting stars I come across as standard, it’s useful to say that’s quite easy for me. I came into this job because I’m a huge sports fan. I stay in it because I am fascinated by the grit, darkness and flaws of the human condition.
To be truly great often takes a selfishness and self-belief that are compelling traits to study, but rather unattractive in the flesh. Indeed, it’s a natural and sometimes disappointing side effect of this job that one becomes very difficult to impress.
So it is not often I am nervous about meeting someone for the first time. Mostly, I expect a sanitised, polished version of what used to be a real person, micro-managed by a media machine that has sandpapered all the rough, interesting edges away.
So the fact I wasn’t expecting that from Ronnie O’Sullivan meant I was surely setting myself up for disappointment. Ronnie is something of the sporting anti-hero. Unfiltered, raw, no-nonsense. He is the every man. For once, I really wanted to like the person I was interviewing, and that is rarely a good place to start.
When he walked into the room we had hired to record our Eurosport podcast, without a manager or PR agent, the signs were good. When he asked where the kettle was and insisted on making his own cup of tea, it looked even better.
By the time we sat down, we had discussed running PBs with Greg Rutherford, my co-host, we had casually chatted injuries, cycling and how much he hated winning his record-equalling seventh world snooker title. And that was before we had pressed the record button.
Any fear I had that Ronnie would be a bit too cool for school, a disdainful rock star in disguise, were already obviously misplaced. Over the next hour, our guest freely discussed everything asked of him; why he disliked the most recent worlds win so much and the dark place he had to take his head to in order to get there, his ‘horrible’ time with drink and drugs, his likeness to Novak Djokovic when it comes to winning.
Ronnie’s talent is in making all of that appear normal, run-of-the-mill, just regular elements of his regular life. Which it is for him. He is one of the few sporting greats who does not believe his own hype, and that’s what makes him even greater.
There was one revelation I thought summed him up quite perfectly. When talking about the trade-off between success and happiness, he told us he keeps a simple diary, a record of his training, his competitions and mood.
Next to every day’s entry, he will draw a picture of a basic smiley face, except the face can be smiling, sad or neutral. He recalled how, when he was going through a particularly successful phase, he noticed a lack of happy faces. They were mostly neutral or sad. It doesn’t take a psychological genius to deduce that winning wasn’t making him happy.
Even with the modern greed for all tips and tricks of the successful, you would struggle to call smiley faces a life hack. And yet, it works. The simplicity of that exercise, combined with its origin in trying to understand more of his own psychology, is so very O’Sullivan. It’s something so basic that stems from, and leads to, something infinitely more complex, a better understanding of oneself.
That is the beauty of Ronnie. He is a regular bloke getting by. A regular bloke with an unparalleled talent and an intelligent curiosity and parents who have been in prison and a love life that’s been served up as an all-you-can eat buffet for the tabloids, getting by.
His approach, and attitude, to his own talent reminded me most of Sir AP McCoy. Both are perfectly cognisant of, and seemingly relative comfortable with, the depths you have to dig to for decades-long dominance in their sports. Both were conversations that stayed with me for a long time after.
It is those kinds of empoweringly vulnerable champions, and men at that, who are arguably why we should give more attention to sports that are not the big back-page fillers – football, cricket, Formula One.
We need different kinds of role models, the kind that are free of the gilded shackles of multi-million pound sponsor deals and those pesky PR managers who come with them. The kind who allow men, in particular, to see it’s okay to have very ordinary flaws and doubts and still want to work through them and become a very simply better person.
Thank goodness for snooker and horse riding and cycling and motorbikes. Thank goodness for the stars that draw our eyes away from Premier League saturation and remind us there are other, quieter places for our sporting passions to land.
Ronnie says he does not want to target an outright record eighth world title. And I get that, I really do.
I understand how the accompanying media scrutiny and external attention that comes with it can be suffocating for someone just trying to get on with earning their living the way they know best. It is perhaps disingenuous of me to say that I, someone who works in that media, would dearly love for him to go for it anyway.
We celebrate the failures and frailties of Ronnie O’Sullivan as much as the successes. We’re simply happy to have the privilege of witnessing him giving it a go, provided there are a few smiley faces in that notebook along the way.
This post appeared first on Snooker – Metro.