Ronnie O’Sullivan lifted the Betfair World Championship trophy for a fifth and perhaps last time tonight as he capped his comeback with Crucible glory.
Out of snooker for almost a year, O’Sullivan rolled up in Sheffield without any competitive match practice and proceeded to tear through the draw, culminating in an 18-12 triumph against surprise finalist Barry Hawkins.
Hawkins, the 34-year-old world number 14 from Kent, emerged from their tussle with huge credit, having performed terrifically well.
It was comfortably the biggest match of his life and he met the challenge head on. His reward was £125,000 – more than treble the size of his previous highest pay cheque – and the respect of his opponent and the watching millions.
But O’Sullivan magisterially took the title.
He did so in record-breaking style too, with his six centuries one more than any player has managed before in a World Championship final, and with his career total of three-figure Crucible breaks now four ahead of former front-runner Stephen Hendry’s haul.
He finished with a brilliant 86, and just like last year brought his son, Ronnie Jr, out to share in the celebrations.
Following breaks of 103, 106, 113 and 100 yesterday, O'Sullivan ploughed in 133 and 124 today.
Only Mark Selby has made six centuries before, in a second-round match against Hendry two years ago.
The record for a world final previously stood at five, shared by John Higgins, Matthew Stevens and Hendry.
O’Sullivan has been whittling away at Hendry’s records, going beyond his total of 127 centuries in the World Championship yesterday and today taking his tally to 131.
He may not intend to chase the Scot’s haul of seven titles, but the manner of his latest run suggests he could quite easily take 11 months off again before returning for another shot at success on snooker’s most famous stage, and then do the same again for the 2015 championship.
In finishing off Hawkins from 15-10 ahead before tonight’s session, O’Sullivan became the first man since Hendry in 1996 to successfully defend the world title.
They flock to watch O’Sullivan in action.
In the audience for the closing day were the actor and presenter Stephen Fry, who once labelled the champion “the Mozart of snooker”, together with O’Sullivan’s artist friend Damien Hirst and darts champion Phil Taylor.
Taylor’s dominance of his sport, with 16 world titles, perhaps puts O’Sullivan’s achievements here into some context.But nevertheless no player has dominated snooker like O’Sullivan this century.
World champion in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012, the way he carved a route this time, casting aside Marcus Campbell, Ali Carter, Stuart Bingham and Judd Trump, has perfectly exhibited the staggering natural ability that puts him head and shoulders above his rivals when in the mood.
Thankfully Hawkins pushed him, bringing the very best out of The Rocket. At 7-7 last night, after a break of 133 from Hawkins, lesser players might have wobbled. Not a chance of that from O’Sullivan. He responded with back-to-back centuries and a long black to take the last frame of the night to lead 10-7 rather than 9-8. That encroaching danger had been repelled.
Even when the match looked lost, the former office clerk stuck to his task, encouraged by coach Terry Griffiths, the 1979 world champion.
Hawkins began the closing session with a total clearance of 127, trebling in the black, and added the next with a run of 66.
But O’Sullivan rattled in 77 to move two frames away, and an 88 before the mid-session interval brought the silverware within touching distance.
The standard was sky high from his cue, and it remained so. He allowed himself a fist pump once he crossed the finishing line.
On the table, O’Sullivan has been mentally pinpoint sharp over the 17 days. His thanks go to Dr Steve Peters, the sports psychiatrist who was present tonight, for that. Off the table, he has personal issues that are prompting his talk of quitting. He says he returned to the sport only to pay school fees.
But after the early scattering of a host of leading seeds, this World Championship could have been a damp squib without O’Sullivan.
As it turned out, it provided one of the great tales of the Crucible, scripted by a genius.
Will it be his swansong to the tournament? He says so, but where O’Sullivan retirement threats go, scepticism follows. He first warned he could quit as a teenager, yet even in recent days has professed his love for snooker.
Should O’Sullivan depart, he would be quitting at the peak of his powers.
On this evidence he is irreplaceable and the sport’s authorities, headed by World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn, must be desperate to keep him in the game.