Ronnie O’Sullivan claims he has never known a Crucible campaign so gruelling but a fourth world title should be his reward tomorrow for lasting the pace.
O’Sullivan built a 10-7 lead over Ali Carter on the first day of the Betfred.com World Championship final, with 18 the victory target.
He will look to press home that advantage and has also dropped a heavy hint a retirement announcement will follow the match.
Whether O’Sullivan goes through with that remains open to question, and perhaps subject to his mood, but he has been giving serious consideration to following Stephen Hendry’s lead in walking away from the sport.
To lose one legend in a tournament goes down as a pity, but understandable given Hendry’s fading talent; a second in O’Sullivan’s case would leave the sport bereft of its greatest entertainer.
If he does quit, O’Sullivan will go out on a thrilling high, but also in an exhausted state.
“This is probably the hardest place to come and play. Seventeen days in Sheffield and I feel like I’ve been here two months,” he said.
“For some reason this time it’s felt a bit longer. I don’t know if it’s age catching up, but it never felt this long when I was 21 or 22.”
O’Sullivan hit a purple patch of form at the end of the opening afternoon session which illustrated the difference between the players.
A sprint to 92 was followed by a total clearance of 141 in the final frame as Carter slipped 5-3 behind in their all-Essex tussle.
The rush of heavy scoring from the firm title favourite was barely in keeping with the action which came before or after it, though, because for much of the opening day the pair were mired in safety exchanges.
Carter had got the better of semi-final opponent Stephen Maguire on the back of high-precision snooker and intense focus, the influence of Peter Ebdon shining through in his play. Ebdon, the 2002 champion in Sheffield, is helping Carter with mental aspects of the game from behind the scenes, and clearly their relationship is proving fruitful.
There are no complaints from O’Sullivan over Carter having a helping hand.
“I think it’s brilliant,” O’Sullivan said.
“I had Ray Reardon in my corner for a couple of years and I learnt so much off Ray. Any snooker player can always add to your game.
“I think it’s very healthy in a way. Peter obviously is a great man to have in your corner and I think Ali’s been wise there. Not that he needs it, but it’s always nice to have someone in your corner.
“They get on really well and it seems to be working. Along your journey it’s good to learn as much as you can, and I think it’s a good move.”
A break of 56 steered O’Sullivan ahead in the day’s first frame, after the pair spent almost 12 minutes toying with each other before the first red dropped.
O’Sullivan’s first century, a 117, was sparked by a fine long red and pushed him 2-0 in front.
Carter replied with 84 and it was 2-2 after a battle of minds in frame four, with every red grouped around a corner pocket. O’Sullivan had the first real chance but spurned it by potting a red when attempting to knock in the black, and Carter seized his opportunity.
They split the next two frames before O’Sullivan found the form which carried him to earlier wins over Ebdon, Mark Williams, Neil Robertson and Matthew Stevens – three world champions and a two-time runner-up.
On the resumption this evening the match frequently returned to its earlier disjointed state, with the safety from both men outstanding at times but not creating a great spectacle.
O’Sullivan moved 9-5 clear with runs of 49 and 68 and a sprinkling of low breaks. Carter, from Tiptree, cut into the lead with a 59 break, but O’Sullivan replied by taking the next with a rapid 62.
The frontrunner had chances to lead 11-6, but when he missed a black to the middle pocket it became clear he would have to settle for a three-frame advantage overnight.