With the Shanghai Masters tournament fast approaching, today I consider how world number one Ronnie O’Sullivan will get on in what promises to be an important season for him with his top ranking under threat…
A sixth consecutive Premier League title, a fourth Masters title, his first Northern Ireland Trophy and a final in Shanghai. Such is the level of expectation that is placed upon him, for some this represents a disappointing season for Ronnie O’Sullivan, though in reality it is a trophy haul that any other player in the world would be happy with.
What is undeniable however is that the world number one status that O’Sullivan has held since the start of the 2008/9 season is now very much under threat with John Higgins starting the upcoming campaign with a significant lead of 6,900 points in the provisional rankings. Ronnie did of course end last season well clear of second placed Stephen Maguire but this was largely because of his UK and World Championship triumphs during 2007/8, rather than his more recent form.
From the outside I would not imagine that the top ranking is the most important thing to him at this stage of his career, with winning the games major titles instead being his main aim. What a high ranking does ensure though is that in theory his early matches should be more straightforward and by definition, a high ranking will mean that he is winning matches so he will not want to slip too far down the list.
Having not seen Ronnie in action since his early exit to Mark Allen at the World Championship, it was interesting to see him back against Marco Fu in the Premier League and looking in good shape with those three straight centuries.
What will have been of concern to O’Sullivan supporters however is his revelation that he has still not found a cue to his liking following the destruction of his world title winning one shortly before the Masters in January. Nine months on I would have expected him to have a suitable replacement by now but for whatever reason that is not the case and although he went is still capable of winning tournaments now, it is something that he will want to rectify.
Having seen little of Ronnie since last season it is tough to say much about his form, though he did look good amongst the balls against Marco Fu this week. The Premier League is a competition that Ronnie has almost always shone in however, regardless of his form in the ranking events and I would not read too much into that as we head to Shanghai.
Generally speaking, while I do not feel that the 2008/9 season was a bad one for him as pointed out above, it was evident to me that he struggled to produce his best form on a consistent basis. As he admitted himself at the Grand Prix, despite his Northern Ireland success and his run to the final of the Shanghai Masters, he was not near his fluent best and his exit to Judd Trump the following day was evidence of this.
Having missed the Bahrain Championship in November, Ronnie continued to struggle for consistency in the ranking events, imploding against Joe Perry in a nightmare second session in Telford, bowing out tamely to Marco Fu in Newport and finishing off with defeats to John Higgins and Mark Allen in the last two events of the season.
He did however maintain his grip on the Premier League with a fifth straight title in the competition and most impressively of all won a fourth Masters title in remarkable fashion considering that he was playing the event with a an untried cue.
What I found most telling about the tournament however is the manner in which he came through a tough final with defending champion Mark Selby. Traditionally with O’Sullivan you expect to see the big breaks and short frames, but against both a player as tactically sound as Selby with a cue which he did not like, it was instead a hard fought victory that (fairly or not), you do not associate with him.
Now approaching 34 and at the stage where I feel his game will start to decline (indeed I feel that his long game already has), perhaps it is this sort of win that he will have to repeat on a more regular basis if he is to remain at the very top of the game and win that fourth world title. Of course we will still see the centuries from him and he is still a match for any player in the game with a break-building game second to none at the moment, but as football fans will tell you it is often the scrappy close matches that can ultimately prove the most significant.
So how will Ronnie perform this season? As ever he will be a strong favourite for the Premier League and is always likely to be in contention in the major events such as the UK and World Championship where the prestige and the big prize money lies.
If he is to remain world number one however I believe that he will certainly have to be more consistent than he was in 2008/9 and settle on a cue that he is totally comfortable with. In his favour however, he has been excellent in the last 32 stage of events (he has not lost in the first round since the 2008 China Open), recently and if he can win an event or too and reach the business end of the others, he will be there or thereabouts come May…