• Rewind to 1997

Quiet please, genius at work

Ismail Vedat
December 5, 2013
Watch Ronnie O'Sullivan create snooker history at the Crucible

Ronnie O'Sullivan celebrates his 38th birthday on Thursday, and with the next 147 maximum break set to be the 100th in the history of snooker, we look back to the quickest made by The Rocket when he cleared the table in just five minutes and 20 seconds.

The debate continues over who is the greatest snooker player of all-time. Is it Stephen Hendry, the man who has won more ranking titles than any other player with 36 triumphs? Or Ronnie O'Sullivan, the most naturally-gifted player the game has seen?

With cases made for both players, there is one feat the pair share in common, and that is the number of 147s made, as both have rattled in a superb 11 each.

But few can debate the finest 147 witnessed, and the honour falls to O'Sullivan at the World Championship at the Crucible in April 1997, where 'The Rocket' lifted the roof off one of sport's most famous venues.

The Chigwell cueman had been making headlines for his dramatic rise to fame since turning professional. He stormed to the UK Championship crown in 1993 to become the youngest winner of a ranking event as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, beating Hendry in the final.

"At one point I thought he was going to explode"

So it was evident that O'Sullivan was primed to be a force to be reckoned with. However, with off-table problems regarding his father Ronnie Sr being jailed the year before for murder, there was a danger that O'Sullivan would never be able to fulfil his potential.

With snooker accustomed to the dominance of Steve Davis in the 1980s and Hendry in the 90s - both were players who ruthlessly dispatched opponents time after time, grinding them down - O'Sullivan provided a breath of fresh air with his lightning quick speed around the table and his ability to make the game seem ridiculously simple.

O'Sullivan was knocking on the door of a world title, but had tumbled at the semi-final and quarter-final stages in two of his four appearances at the Crucible. His fifth visit to Sheffield only saw him reach the second round, but it was his stunning display in the match before which left all associated with snooker astonished, none more so than his opponent Mick Price, who had the best seat in the house to watch a moment of magic.

"On this occasion, I played one of the worst safety shots of my career, let Ronnie in and five minutes later history was made," Price recalls of the brilliance of O'Sullivan. All the more galling for Price that his safety play was usually his most reliable trait.

Price had left the cueball considerably short of the balk line, and O'Sullivan stroked a red into the bottom left pocket to cannon the black, and suddenly history was in the making.

"I realised from very early on that he could get a maximum and the way he did it was amazing," says Price. "He was just getting quicker and quicker and at one point I thought he was going to explode."

O'Sullivan had been on the receiving end of a 147 from Hendry three months earlier in January, which was the Scot's fourth in competition, and was yet to get one of his own. O'Sullivan's proved to be the one forever remembered. "I only realised the guy was human when he took a breath before the green - and he told me later that he started getting a bit nervous at that point," Price says.

Ronnie O'Sullivan won his first world title in 2001 © Getty Images

O'Sullivan picked off the loose reds as he navigated his way around the pack of remaining ones, only to leave himself short on the black on 49 points. Needing to fly into the reds, O'Sullivan generated an angle only he could manage, and was now in prime position.

Dennis Taylor was also making his maiden maximum, albeit from the commentary box. "I'm starting to get excited here," the 1985 world champion said as O'Sullivan crept closer to the mark. "This is amazing. I've never commentated on a 147 before."

O'Sullivan had sailed past the winning post for the frame, but with 10 reds and 10 blacks there were other thoughts on his mind. It took him four minutes to reach the century, which amazingly is not the quickest; that accolade belongs to Tony Drago with an effort at three-and-a-half minutes.

While O'Sullivan had potted all the reds, a potential problem could have arrived en route from the final black to the final yellow. "Slow down white, slow down white!" Taylor nervously called out as the cueball made its way past the blue and into the perfect position for O'Sullivan.

Six balls remained, the colours on their customary spots, and all potted thousands of times in practice by O'Sullivan. Even the grand stage of the Crucible, the place where dreams have been fulfilled but many hearts have been broken, could not slow O'Sullivan.

"I don't believe this. What a break. What a fantastic maximum break that is. Ronnie O'Sullivan's delighted, the crowd are delighted. I'm delighted! Sensational! I've never seen anything like that," Taylor said in commentary, barely able to contain himself.

And neither could O'Sullivan, who threw his chalk into the crowd and immediately asked for someone to fetch him another one.

When Price played the poor safety, not even O'Sullivan could have imagined a piece of snooker history would come so quickly after, a feat highly unlikely to be repeated.

"That's the main thing that people mention to me"

"It is still my favourite frame. It is the one I get asked about the most. To score a record maximum at the Crucible was an amazing thing and remains something very special," O'Sullivan recently said about the break.

While O'Sullivan continues to set the standards in the game, Price brought an end to his career in 2004, and to this day will only be remembered for one thing.

"It has also become a regular quiz question: Who was Ronnie O'Sullivan's opponent when he made his maximum break in five minutes 20 seconds in 1997?" says Price. "After 15 years as a professional player, and at one time being in the top 21, that's the main thing that people mention to me.

"In fact, even after all these years, there's hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't bring it up."

What happened next?

O'Sullivan was soon sent crashing back down to Earth as he was dumped out of the competition in the next round by Darren Morgan 13-12, and his maximum at the Crucible turned out to be the only special moment he had in the 90s as he failed to win a world title during that period.

Instead, his five triumphs have come since the turn of the century, and he has also powered his way to another 10 maximums, sharing the record of 11 with Hendry.

In 2010, O'Sullivan caused controversy when he initially refused to pot the final black for his tenth 147, reaching 140 and then shaking hands with Mark King at the World Open [previously known as the Grand Prix].

Referee Jan Verhaas told O'Sullivan to complete the maximum, as 'The Rocket' said they did not thrill him anymore. Critics may argue that technically, the maximum should not have counted as he shook hands with his opponent, but it was still recorded in the history books. Another memorable moment from an incomparable player.

Download ESPN's new UK sport app, a fresh and powerful new way to follow your favourite UK sports news, scores and video.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd