Ronnie O’Sullivan doesn’t normally turn down a challenge – he’s a man more accustomed to scaling the heights of every obstacle he comes across.
Yet Stephen Hendry’s record of seven world snooker titles is one mountain even the Rocket claims he won’t set himself the task of climbing.
On paper, O’Sullivan isn’t that far away from matching Hendry – five world titles to his name already and arguably in the form of his life as he prepares to head to the Crucible for the 26th time next week.
Statistically speaking, the 42-year-old has had the best season of his career. In fact, statistically speaking, no snooker player has ever had a better campaign – O’Sullivan’s five ranking event titles to date equals the single-season record.
He’s the bookies’ favourite heading into the 2018 Betfred World Championship – where he opens up against world No.18 Stephen Maguire on Saturday – and anything other than lifting the trophy aloft two weeks on Monday, for the first time since 2013, would be viewed as a disappointment.
However, O’Sullivan freely admits the 17-day marathon in Sheffield doesn’t particularly suit him – “some people might enjoy that sort of slog style but it’s not my favourite tournament because obviously it goes on a bit too long,” he says – and his numerous interests outside snooker mean he could well retire before having too many more shots at Hendry’s magnificent seven.
Instead, the world No.2 has other goals he still wants to accomplish on the baize.
“I’m motivated by stuff that I think is achievable,” explains O’Sullivan. “Breaking the 36 ranking events that Stephen Hendry holds [O’Sullivan currently has 33] is something that is achievable, so that is one of my goals.
“A thousand centuries is definitely something I will do at some point [he has currently made 937], as long as I don’t have a fatal accident that prevents me from playing!
“That’s something that’s definitely on my radar and obviously the 18 major titles [World Championship, UK Championship and Masters crowns] that me and Hendry both jointly hold is something that I’m in a position to move on and beat. They’re three goals that I’d like to tick off.
“Seven world titles is probably a mountain I wouldn’t want to set myself to climb because I don’t know when I’m going to stop playing.
“I haven’t set a date, but while things are still going pretty well I’ll keep playing. It’s probably the best results I’ve had this season, although my form has probably been better.
“That’s kind of weird to say – how do you have your best season and yet you feel like your form has not been as good as it has been in previous seasons where you’ve maybe not won as much?
“It just goes to show that sport can be pretty unpredictable and you just have to suck it up sometimes and see what you get at the end of it.”
The days of the mid-noughties and early 2010s that saw O’Sullivan threatening to quit snooker on a seemingly annual basis and taking a year off from the sport at a time are firmly behind him – thanks in no small part to working with renowned sports psychologist Dr Steve Peters since 2011.
But he has also found plenty of other interests to keep him balanced – he’s a successful snooker pundit on Eurosport, a published crime author and has filmed a documentary called American Hustle for the History Channel, where he explores America’s history with the game of pool.
O’Sullivan’s love of running is also well-documented, while a quick scout of his social media feeds will reveal how enamoured he is with cooking.
Snooker is no longer the be-all and end-all for O’Sullivan and, as is often the case, this has actually brought out the best of him on the baize, as his 26-year professional career shows no signs of slowing down.
I’m motivated by stuff that I think is achievable
“When snooker is all you’ve ever done, you can’t really picture life without it, in some ways,” he muses.
“There’s a Chinese saying: you get two lives, one to 40 and then 40 to 80 and I’ve kind of taken that on board and thought ‘I can’t keep playing forever.’
“Sometimes you have to be a bit proactive in what it is you want to do and plan things out. It’s great to do lots of other things – I like the idea of trying lots of things to see what I actually enjoy and there’s two or three of them that I really like to do. Once snooker fades out, more of the other stuff will fade in.
“I do a lot of stuff in China and there’s a possibility they’re going to put me in another series of ‘American Hustle’.
“I think the key for me is my life always has to come first and I try and fit as much stuff in that I really love to do.”
O’Sullivan is a big part of snooker’s golden oldies still showing the young guns how it’s done.
In addition to his five ranking titles this season, fellow 42-year-old John Higgins and Mark Williams, 43, have also won two each this term.
And 26 years after the trio all turned professional together in 1992, ‘the Rocket’ is proud of the fact their rivalry is overshadowing the talent coming through.
“I think it’s great – me, John Higgins and Mark Williams are all in our 43rd years now and a lot of the other players are in their late 20s, early 30s,” said O’Sullivan.
“These are the guys who are meant to be taking over from us and yet we’ve been winning most of the tournaments this season.
“I don’t know why that is – maybe the food we were eating was much better when we were younger! I don’t really know, but I guess you’ve just got to make hay while the sun shines.
“A lot of it is how you progress through the juniors and amateurs and I think Mark Williams, John Higgins and I were ready when we turned pro.
“As 14-year-olds we were probably ready to turn pro and I think with a lot of the guys now, you can easily turn professional but they haven’t had the experience of top amateur snooker.
“I think because of that they’re not really good enough to turn professional. I’m not sure if the grounding is as good as it used to be for these young players.”
Watch the snooker World Championship LIVE on Eurosport and Eurosport Player with Colin Murray and analysis from Ronnie O’Sullivan, Jimmy White and Neal Foulds.