World Championship: Ronnie O'Sullivan close to emulating former coach Ray Reardon

Ronnie O'Sullivan
Ronnie O'Sullivan

In May 1975, six months before Ronnie O'Sullivan was born, a sprightly 42-year-old Ray Reardon ventured Down Under to beat Eddie Charlton for the World Championship by the odd frame in 61.

It was Reardon's fourth world title and he would go on to win two more, appearing in his last final against Alex Higgins in 1982 and only permanently relinquishing his hold on the number one ranking the following year.

Like Reardon, O'Sullivan is showing signs of saving his best for his fifth decade: a time in which records are beginning to tumble with satisfying regularity, and recognition of his status as the greatest player in the history of the game is almost unanimous.

The unlikely links with Reardon, whose careful and considered approach seem diametrically opposed to O'Sullivan's five-minute-maximum mentality, extended to the Welshman coaching O'Sullivan to his 2004 world title triumph.

Given Reardon's positive impact, it seemed fitting that when O'Sullivan returned to the world number one position with victory at the Players' Championship in Llandudno in March, he was the oldest player since Reardon to achieve the feat.

Victory in this year's World Championships would see him tie Reardon and Steve Davis on six world titles, just one away from matching Stephen Hendry's modern-era record of seven.

O'Sullivan, who sporadically seems to revel in constructing an image of a waning old-stager performing minor heroics to hold the young tide at bay, is adamant that beating, or even matching, Hendry's total is unlikely.

"The records are great and the only one left now is the world titles, but I don't see that happening," O'Sullivan insisted after his win in Llandudno - which also tied Hendry's record of 36 career ranking titles.

In a career punctuated with retirement threats - his latest being a presumably tongue-in-cheek declaration that he is ready for the seniors tour - the now-43-year-old arguably appears more content than ever.

"I'm not driven by records," said O'Sullivan, who had become the first player to rack up 1,000 competitive career centuries in the Llandudno final, following last year's record 19th triple crown triumph at the UK Championships in York.

"For me, I'd trade every ranking point I've made and every bit of prize money just for the experience, the love and the highs I've had from playing this game since I was a kid. You can't buy that.

"People go to work and most of them don't like what they do, but they have to do it.

"I kind of love what I do - there are parts of it that I don't like, but it's about playing enough to keep myself in the shop window."

The fragile serenity which suffuses O'Sullivan's game this season will be tested again at the Crucible. Last year, a shock second-round exit came complete with a bizarre shoulder-barge of his opponent, Ali Carter.

The previous year, O'Sullivan's narrow defeat to Ding Junhui came amid an atmosphere of controversy generated by his claims after his first-round win over Gary Wilson that he had been "bullied" and "intimidated" by snooker bosses.

It is a sign of O'Sullivan's remarkable talent that for all his enigmatic character traits - including, perhaps most bizarrely of all, a recent habit of lapsing into fake Australian accents to amuse himself during interviews - he has reached the stage of his career at which the greatest records begin to fall.

Reardon spotted the extent of O'Sullivan's talent in 2004, when there were real fears his true potential would remain unfulfilled. In an interview with the Guardian, Reardon insisted: "Ronnie is the greatest thing I've ever seen in snooker."

One tantalising record remains: Reardon became the oldest winner of a ranking title when he beat Jimmy White to win the inaugural Players' Professional Tournament in 1982, at the age of 50.

There were times when O'Sullivan seemed hell-bent on self-destruction having lived through less than half that number. Now, as he heads into his 27th World Championships, it is ironic that longevity could be the factor which provides the Rocket's career with its final, gloriously unexpected twist.

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