Ronnie O’Sullivan is out of form.
Hopelessly so, despairingly so, to the extent that maybe the ‘A’ game which made him nigh-on unbeatable in 2004 is irretrievable.
A sporting legend at rock bottom is a distressing sight, evidenced by the fate which has befallen bigger names than O’Sullivan.
The likes of Mike Tyson, Seve Ballesteros and Paul Gascoigne – and on a whole different level Muhammad Ali – have wilted in the public eye, each of them gorging on past glories while their hard-earnd reputations have been eaten away.
O’Sullivan is only 30 and should not have to worry about irreversible decline, particularly when his is not a young man’s game.
But it is in O’Sullivan’s nature to be questioning of his future in snooker, to reflect it has already made him a rich man, and to ascertain there is more to pontificate over in life than which colour to play for off a red.
He still loves the game, but when he crashed out of the World Championship last year in Sheffield, it was an emotional O’Sullivan who spoke of taking a 12-month sabbatical.
He was back at the table with cue in hand just a few days later, but results since have been those of a player ill at ease with his environment. He may as well have taken the year off. Only Alan McManus, Ian McCulloch and Matthew Stevens of the provisional world top 20 have had worse seasons.
It would take a very favourable sequence of results, not only his own, for O’Sullivan to cling on to his world number one status next season.
The provisional rankings have him in fourth place … and falling.
O’Sullivan played James Wattana at the China Open last month. He lost 5-0, and that represents his last competitive outing.
“These ranking tournaments are very important. I don’t want to give up the number one spot but it looks like it’s gone now,” he said.
“I wanted to stick around longer, but I couldn’t make a 20 break.”
This is a man capable of century breaks left-handed, and Wattana was just as stunned, explaining: “It didn’t look like his concentration was there. He seemed a bit lost.”
O’Sullivan is without a match victory in a ranking event since being thrashed 9-2 by John Higgins in the Grand Prix final at Preston in October.
He was booed in the final session that night as the ‘Wizard of Wishaw’ raced to the title.
All of which brings us to a wholly different place from 12 months ago, when O’Sullivan headed to Sheffield with his number one ranking already concreted for the 2005-06 season, regardless of whether he triumphed or made a first-round exit.
His achievement fell somewhere in between, falling to Peter Ebdon in the quarter-finals after one of the most dramatic matches of the tournament.
O’Sullivan lost a gruelling battle to Ebdon, and declared: “I’ll probably have a year off. I’ve not made a final decision yet but I’m 90% positive that’s what I will do.
“I’ve not fallen out of love with the game, it’s still my passion. It would break my heart to turn my back on it. But mentally the game is taking its toll on me.”
The next day, O’Sullivan’s adopted mentor Ray Reardon gave his take on events.
“He will have a break and I don’t think what he said was on the spur of the moment. But the length of time he is talking about is a bit steep. I think the time he is talking about will be half of that – if not less.
“Ronnie is a wizard and it was sad to see the way he played, so lacklustre, fed up, bored, having that want-to-go-home sort of feeling.
“It wouldn’t have surprised me if he had walked off the table. He was bored to death. I think the audience were bored to death. I was bored to death. That is the slowest game of snooker I have ever seen in my life.”
O’Sullivan is not one for attritional matches.
Steve Davis knows him well – the pair are both Essex boys – and is backing O’Sullivan to come through this mid-career crisis.
“I must admit, and this is no reflection on Ronnie, but I don’t take much notice of players talking 10 minutes after losing,” said Davis.
“If someone says something out of season, I’d take much more notice of something like that than what comes out in a press conference, and that’s the same for all the players.
“I don’t think there was ever any doubt that Ronnie O’Sullivan would be at Sheffield this year and that he’d be a force, but the force is down to himself.
“On the day there’s another great player in the opposite chair and that’s the same for Ronnie and everyone else.
“But he is an enigma who could just flick the switch and see it all go right.”
The trouble is, last year’s match against Ebdon exposed a flaw in the two-time champion’s game. Get under his skin by whatever means and he looks instantly vulnerable.
The winner from 2001 and 2004 has a mighty task ahead this year.