Ronnie O’Sullivan admits he has come close to cracking up over the last fortnight but the four-time winner is through to another Betfair World Championship final after seeing off Judd Trump.
The 37-year-old played just one match this season before rolling up in Sheffield for his 21st crack at Crucible glory, having decided in November to skip the rest of the season.
By late February he had reconsidered, with O’Sullivan stating this week that he returned to resolve a cash-flow problem, with school fees overdue, but planned to retire for good after fulfilling a 10-tournament sponsor’s contract.
But he has sent Marcus Campbell, Ali Carter, Stuart Bingham and now Trump scuttling for the exits and stands on the brink of becoming the first player since Stephen Hendry in 1996 to successfully defend the world title.
It has looked all too easy at times for snooker’s most gifted player, but O’Sullivan tells a different story.
“It doesn’t seem like you’re being pushed but there are times out there where you’re that close to cracking,” he said.
“Then something will happen and you’ll pull ahead and that’ll give you belief and confidence, but in every match there has been a point where I’ve felt, ’This could be slipping, this could be cracking’.”
O’Sullivan polished off a comfortable 17-11 win over Trump this afternoon.
He did not need to reach peak form to come through, as Trump failed to deliver on his tough-talking prior to the match, when he stressed he would not be frightened of O’Sullivan’s reputation.
The apprentice found the master still has all the old magic.
“Obviously I’ve been in that position myself and you tell yourself you’re not scared of someone,” O’Sullivan said.
“But when you get out there and the pressure mounts you then realise why someone like Stephen Hendry or John Higgins (is hard to beat) – there’s no hiding place out there.
“It’s all right going in there with lots and lots of confidence and saying these things.
“Against some people it might knock them off their game but there’s always going to be players around, no matter what sport you’re in, who choose to ignore that and use it as motivation.”
O’Sullivan suspects there may be players envious of his success over the past fortnight.
A host of big names lost early at the Crucible, including Higgins, Neil Robertson, Mark Selby and Stephen Maguire.
“I would imagine a few of them would be a bit disappointed to see me do well but I don’t know,” O’Sullivan said.
Last night O’Sullivan was ticked off by referee Michaela Tabb for what the Scot perceived as a rude gesture.
At the time O’Sullivan denied trying to cause offence, saying he was wiping his cue, and today he stuck to his guns when asked whether Tabb had misunderstood his actions.
He said: “I think so. My hands are sticky, you get sticky hands through sweating, my (cue) butt was sweating maybe.”
Trump added: “I didn’t see it. I trust Michaela’s judgement and it takes some balls to stand up to him.”
Trump felt his performance lacked sparkle, saying: “My scoring wasn’t good enough at this level and it was the worst I’ve played in this tournament.”
The 23-year-old Bristolian also urged O’Sullivan to reconsider his plans to walk away from snooker.
“I want to win the World Championship with him in it and I want to beat him on the way,” Trump said.
O’Sullivan may have little choice but to keep playing.
Asked about what he had done with the millions of pounds of prize-money he has pocketed in his career, O’Sullivan said: “I don’t know where it’s all gone to be honest with you.
“The reality is that I’m not in a position to retire.”
O’Sullivan, who has three children, pays maintenance and school fees and estimates he has spent £250,000 on lawyers in the last three years.
Asked whether he might be back at the Crucible next year, O’Sullivan said: “You can never, never, never, never say never.
“I didn’t intend to come back this year, I took a year out and didn’t miss playing snooker, but I’m back for various reasons.”