Ronnie O’Sullivan has revealed the warmth of his relationship with artist Damien Hirst was a major factor behind his decision to return to snooker after almost a year out.
Hirst, whose famous and controversial works have included a bisected cow and calf in formaldehyde and a diamond-encrusted skull, has in the past compared O’Sullivan’s talent to that of the late Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.
The Britart pioneer with the nine-figure bank balance and the snooker maverick have a friendship that has reached the stage where 47-year-old Hirst rarely misses O’Sullivan’s big matches.
It remains to be seen whether Hirst attends Saturday’s clash that pits O’Sullivan against Scotland’s Marcus Campbell in the first round of the Betfair World Championship, but the likelihood is that he will be present, distinguishable by oversized, dark-rimmed glasses, to see his friend’s first match of importance since last year’s World final.
“The only person in my corner will be Damien Hirst,” O’Sullivan said.
“He loves me and I love him and we’re best mates, and everybody else will fit around what we do.
“That’s why I’m coming back to snooker, because I miss seeing Damien, I miss seeing (Hirst’s personal assistant) Sylvia. I miss seeing all of my little friends that used to love getting away to snooker tournaments.
“The minute I said ’I’m not playing’ I knew I’d miss out on those trips with my friends.
“I know it’s 10 o’clock Saturday morning and I’ll be there, and if Damien’s not there I’ll be on my own, but I’ll be all right. I’m 37 years of age, I’m sweet. Nothing scares me.”
Hirst’s friendship with O’Sullivan was born out of the artist’s fascination with O’Sullivan and his impulsive ways.
Those have been curbed to an extent over the past couple of years by O’Sullivan’s work with sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, who has steered the Chigwell cueman towards a state of improved mental rigidity.
It was a driven O’Sullivan that beat three former world champions in Peter Ebdon, Mark Williams and Neil Robertson en route to his fourth Crucible title last May, before in the early stages of this season he chose to step away from the tour.
“Since I decided to come back to playing snooker I see Steve quite a bit,” O’Sullivan said.
“We’re more friends now. There’s nothing really I can be told now. Once I’ve sucked knowledge up, I’ve sucked it up.
“I just need to put into practice what I’ve learnt in that year I had last year. We’re just friends and he’s here to support me.”
Given the intensity of the World Championship, and his lack of recent match practice, there could be a moment where O’Sullivan needs that help.
“But I think I’m okay,” he said.
“Results will take care of themselves and whatever I put in I’ll get out. It’s how much I want it. I’m just happy to be here.”
O’Sullivan briefly worked as a farm hand during his career hiatus, and it has made him appreciate his snooker career all the more.
“It’s better than working on the farm. I tried that one, that did my head in,” he said.
The last time O’Sullivan stood on the Crucible stage floor he was carrying his son and the World Championship trophy, with his mission accomplished and a fourth title snagged.
This year’s tournament possibly represents his greatest challenge yet, with the distinct possibility that O’Sullivan’s comeback could fall flat something even he acknowledges.
He suggests recent form should not matter in Sheffield. If what makes the difference over the 17 days of competition is knowledge of how to perform in a World Championship, then only fellow four-time winner John Higgins of his rivals can match O’Sullivan.
“Last year was probably my best year because I felt so confident inside,” O’Sullivan said.
“I’ve been playing okay in practice, it’s different to matches.
“But if I win my first match and settle down it’s still the same game.
“If I’m cueing all right and feeling all right I should be a match for anyone but who knows? The World Championship is a one-off event and the form book usually goes out of the window.”