By Mark Staniforth, PA
Ronnie O’Sullivan has shrugged off the prospect of equalling Stephen Hendry’s record of seven world snooker titles on the eve of his first-round match against former semi-finalist David Gilbert at the Crucible.
Newly reinstalled at the top of the world rankings at the age of 46, six-time champion O’Sullivan maintains he has no interest in making more history in the sport, insisting: “Seven, eight, nine, 10 – they are just numbers to me.
“I don’t get tied into all these records and stuff that everyone likes to talk about. Snooker is the least important thing in my life but it’s something I like to do. I am not going to turn (another) one down, put it that way.”
O’Sullivan, who pulled level with Steve Davis in the record books when he clinched his most recent crown in 2020, has been dealt the toughest possible opener against Gilbert, the world number 19 who reached the semi-finals in 2019, and who battled through two rounds of qualifying.
And O’Sullivan predicted the quality of this season’s qualifiers – which also include former UK champion Stephen Maguire and rising Iranian star Hossein Vafaei, could create “carnage” among the sport’s biggest names.
“I think anyone can win the tournament this year because there are so many good players,” added O’Sullivan.
“I think the first round is going to be like Formula One going into the first corner. It’s going to be carnage. There will be a lot of seeds going, guaranteed.
“Every first round match I have played in Sheffield has been hard. It is probably the hardest match you play all year. It gets easier after the first match, so the longer I stay in the more dangerous I will probably be.
“I don’t really have any expectations. I’m going to be coming here for 18 days no matter what, and I’m going to enjoy myself. If I’m still in the tournament, great. If I’m not, it will still be great – I’m not too worried.”
O’Sullivan enters the tournament on the back of a solid campaign which yielded one title at the World Grand Prix this year and having pushed Neil Robertson to a final frame defeat in an epic Tour Championship semi-final in Llandudno earlier this month.
O’Sullivan has consistently poured plaudits upon the Australian, who comes to the Crucible on the back of a best-ever season with four ranking titles, but Robertson admitted his dislike for the long-form format having failed to return to the final since his solitary win in 2010.
Robertson, who begins his campaign on Tuesday against Ashley Hugill, said: “Ronnie does like deflecting attention away from himself and making everyone else favourite, but there is a tremendous amount of mutual respect.
“We had one of the most outstanding matches of all time in the semi-finals of the Tour Championship and I’d love to play him in the one-table set-up here, but we’ve both got a long way to go.
“I’ve had my best ever season whatever happens, so I come here with a lot of optimism. I’m comfortable with being the favourite and the focus for me this year is to play my brand of snooker, which is attacking and making big breaks.”
Defending champion Mark Selby starts his quest for a fifth world title on Saturday morning against qualifier Jamie Jones, while UK champion Zhao Xintong also gets his maiden campaign as a seed underway against Jamie Clarke.
O’Sullivan starts on Saturday afternoon, as does former finalist Barry Hawkins against Jackson Page, before Selby and Jones conclude their encounter in Saturday’s evening session. Shaun Murphy and Stephen Maguire also get their first round match under way.