Ronnie O’Sullivan has one eye on his day of reckoning as he sets out for Sheffield seeking a third successive World Championship title.
A mesmerising champion in 2012 and 2013, to follow his three previous Crucible triumphs, O’Sullivan starts as a near-unbackable favourite to triumph again.
At the age of 38, and with his 40th birthday coming up in December next year, O’Sullivan is beginning to tot up his abundant achievements. The records are falling into place for the player Steve Davis has called “the best genius we’ve seen in snooker, possibly in sport”.
But one target remains, one O’Sullivan has tended to dismiss as beyond him but which nonetheless is coming into sharp, unavoidable focus: Stephen Hendry’s magnificent seven world titles.
Five down, two to go.
“I’ve won so many tournaments now that you just accept it, it’s part of the job,” O’Sullivan said.
“It’s about stacking it up and getting the CV looking as nice as you possibly can so when you don’t play, people can say he won this, won that, had this amount of maximum breaks, this amount of centuries.
“For me it’s about winning all the major, major events: the UK, the Masters, the World.”
O’Sullivan, ironically, was speaking after a sparkling win against Ding Junhui in the final of the Welsh Open last month. He capped that victory with a 147 break in the last frame of a resounding win, taking him to 12 career maximums, out on his own now and one ahead of retired Scot Hendry.
“That’s a nice record to have,” O’Sullivan said. “A little bit of me just felt it’d be nice to get one of his records, he’s got so many.”
In theatre terms, the Newport event is strictly off-Broadway fare, but O’Sullivan will step out into the starry bright lights of snooker’s greatest stage on the morning of Saturday, April 21, as the 17-day show’s leading man.
Worryingly, for the rest of the field, O’Sullivan is no longer batting back compliments. Rather than repeatedly hankering after the form he had as a teenager, which had become a wearying trend, O’Sullivan is taking joy in his performances.
“I didn’t think I had much left in me playing-wise but it’s weird; I seem to be playing as well as I have done,” he said.
After taking almost a year off, spent with his children and milling about on a local farm, O’Sullivan defended his title off the shortest of run-ups 12 months ago.
Early rust fell away and there was no stopping him, with Barry Hawkins brushed aside in the final.
“All the moaning I’ve been doing over the years, I think people didn’t see how I was really playing when I was younger,” O’Sullivan said last month.
“I just got loads of technical problems and struggled for about 18 years. So the moaning was justified, but I can understand why people didn’t realise, because it was only the people I grew up with that really knew how good I was.
“I’m still a little bit off. I’ve not got better, I’m just playing how I know I can play.”
O’Sullivan has won three major tournaments this season, including a fifth Masters title. He is susceptible to losses in short matches, with Yu Delu, Stuart Bingham and Liang Wenbo all registering wins over the Rocket since October.
But the last time O’Sullivan was beaten in a match longer than best-of-11 length was his 13-10 loss to John Higgins at the 2011 World Championship.
The keen and talented runner has long-distance ability in the day job to fend off all-comers, and he admits the whole winning experience has become all too facile. If O’Sullivan begins in prime form again this year, the likes of Neil Robertson, Ding and Mark Selby will fear the worst.
“In the last few years I’ve won tournaments and it’s felt easy. It should feel hard. But no one’s got near me,” O’Sullivan said. “Even in my world titles I’ve won each by six, seven, eight frames.”
After back-to-back processions, the World Championship is in danger of becoming a one-man show. But goodness what a show.