Davis: O'Sullivan playing greatest snooker in sport's history
With the 17-day World Championship snooker marathon at the halfway stage, Desmond Kane speaks to Steve Davis about Ronnie O'Sullivan's quest to equal the six titles he collected in the 1980s.
Steve Davis believes it is inevitable that Ronnie O'Sullivan will equal his haul of six world titles, but feels that such a rich collection of trinkets is merely a stepping stone on the defending champion's journey to establishing himself as the sport's undisputed greatest of all time.
O'Sullivan produced an immaculate performance in recovering from trailing 9-7 and 11-9 against Joe Perry on Saturday morning to complete a 13-11 win in a typically taut contest in the second round at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre. With the pressure palpable in the arena, O'Sullivan responded with memorable runs of 124 and 113 in the final two frames of the match.
He will meet 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy in the quarter-finals over the best of 25 frames on Tuesday and Wednesday as he continues his quest to add to his successes in lifting the trophy in 2001, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2013.
O'Sullivan needs one more title to equal the totals of Davis and Ray Reardon in the modern era while a third straight gong this year would leave him one short of Stephen Hendry's record of seven assembled in Sheffield in the 1990s.
Davis appreciates that some snooker historians will point to the record books as the indicator of who is the game's finest protagonist, but the former world number one already considers O'Sullivan to be the sport's greatest ahead of himself and his old nemesis Hendry. With or without more world titles.
O'Sullivan said in his latest Eurosport blog before the tournament that he felt the top six players around the millenium were the most competitive in green baize history.
"I've always said that snooker enjoyed a golden era when Hendry, Higgins, Williams, Matthew Stevens, the late, great Paul Hunter and myself were battling it out," commented O'Sullivan. "I truly believe that was the best top six in the history of the game."
But his fellow Englishman Davis - champion in 1981, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988 and 1989 - is quick to argue such a point.
"You have to look at the standard Ronnie has produced recently," said Davis. "I think he is better now than he was back when he was winning the world title for the first time in 2001. Perhaps he feels it is easier now, but that is more down to his own standard making it easier for himself.
"Amazingly, O'Sullivan has built up another level of invulnerability around him that is almost like a shield.
"It as if he has reinforced the force field around him to a level that people probably didn't think was possible. Certainly not me.
"As long as he keeps applying himself at the World Championship, and keeps competitive during the season, I think it is inevitable that he is going to win six.
"I think he has got every chance of seven. Perhaps eight could be debated, but only because he may need more bites at the cherry that he can withstand mentally.
"I don't think he can guarantee winning it for the next three years. It is not as easy as that. But he is proving such a tough man to beat over the longer distance these days."
Davis believes O'Sullivan is benefiting from looking after himself on and off the table. He has a voracious appetite for running while sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters has been working with him on the managing the crucial mental aspect of the sport.
"He comes in thinking 'hit me as much as possible..I'll take it then I'm going to hit you'. He didn't always think like that so perhaps mentally he is in a better frame of mind.
"I don't know much about Steve Peters and what he brings to the table, so to speak, but if Ronnie raves about him so strongly I'm happy to go along with his assessment. It isn't doing him any harm. "
Ronnie O'Sullivan and Steve Davis at UK Championship. Eurosport
The man from Chigwell is already the oldest world champion since Welshman Reardon lifted the old pot for a sixth time at the age of 45 in 1978.
Like his world title collection, Davis feels that age is just a meaningless number for O'Sullivan providing he remains fit and healthy.
"You will always get people who will point the finger at the record books to argue the point, but if he wants to and is hungry enough, Ronnie can go well into his 40s as the most incredible genius snooker has ever seen," said Davis.
"He is not unfit, and he looks as if he is a very fresh player at the age of 38. Most players see their standard drop off around this age because the mental wounds take their toll, but that doesn't seem to look on the cards for him.
"He would have enough cracks at getting to eight or nine titles if he wants them, but he may not always be in the right frame of mind over say a six-year period.
"If he wins it this year, he might keep the momentum going. But if he doesn't win it this year, seven or eight is getting harder. Not impossible, but it can get away from you.
"We have to remember that there is only one World Championship a year. It is not like winning Majors in golf. Majors are always around the corner in tennis and golf, but in snooker you have to wait another year, and another year. I know from personal experience, it is difficult when you go a few years without one."
While Davis classes O'Sullivan as snooker's greatest, he also feels that Ding Junhui should be rated inside the top 10 players in the history of the sport.
Ding suffered a surprise 10-9 loss to Michael Wasley in the first round. Despite winning five ranking events this season, he continues to toil in Sheffield having reached only one semi-final since his first appearance at the Crucible in 2007.
"It is so tough for Ding Junhui," said Davis. "He is cleaning up throughout the season in all the other tournaments.
"He is playing unbelievable stuff, but still hasn't won the World Championship. It is ridiculous to suggest he is not one of the game's greatest players already, but just because he hasn't won the world title people use that as reason to detract from his level of performance."