Ronnie O'Sullivan and sport's game-changing moments
Sports usually change imperceptibly, nudging forwards in increments, so that it is only with the benefit of hindsight - footage of muddy old pitches, of funky old golf swings, of scrum-halves 10st when wet - that you realise exactly how far a sport has come. Or, in the case of heavyweight boxing, regressed.
Then you get those game-changing moments when a sportsperson is able to shunt their sport forwards so that you can actually see the foundations move. Moments so jaw-dropping, they become crystalised in the mind.
Snooker's Ronnie O'Sullivan, playing in his 20th World Championship from next week, was one such game-changer, a man who altered the perception of the way his sport could be played: fast, loose, rakish. And brutally effective.
Alex Higgins was fast, loose and rakish, but he was a maverick rather than a game-changer. Alex Higgins made seven century breaks in 14 Crucible appearances. The more prosaic Tony Meo made eight in 11. O'Sullivan has made 106 in 19.
Stephen Hendry has won seven world titles to O'Sullivan's three and made 124 Crucible tons. Most snooker buffs consider Hendry to be the greater player, even O'Sullivan. But, in terms of temperament, Hendry was Steve Davis. Only better. Cold, mechanical, stripped down to a winner. Then came 'The Rocket' and 'that' 147 break.
Hendry made superior maximums, including one in a Crucible semi-final against Jimmy White, with the result still up in the air. But Hendry was so calculating, so inscrutable, he made the peaks of snooker seem remote, something only the emotionally shackled could aspire to.
Five minutes and 20 seconds was all it took for O'Sullivan to make his break heard 'round the world in 1997. It was a break made with swagger and crowned with a grin. Hendry worked cloaked in the solemnity of great achievement, O'Sullivan found it impossible not to acknowledge how great he was.
A couple of years back, former world champion Shaun Murphy criticised O'Sullivan for neglecting his ambassadorial duties. Strange, when you consider an awful lot of players since O'Sullivan have wanted to be like him.
"Ronnie's the best player out there," says Hendry, beaten 17-4 and 17-6 by O'Sullivan in their last two Crucible meetings. "He might not be in terms of stats and titles, but in terms of talent and ability to play snooker, he is."
O'Sullivan's greatest legacy was to show it was possible to brutalise opponents, on a consistent basis, in a way the average sports fan could relate to. Not as consistent as Hendry, or even John Higgins, but what is perfection without magnetism, without emotional involvement - without joy?
FIVE MORE GAME-CHANGING MOMENTS IN SPORT
Usain Bolt (2008 Olympics, Beijing)
The accepted wisdom was that tall men can't sprint. At least not 6ft 5in men. "Leg turnover too slow. Too slovenly out of the blocks." But there was one lanky Jamaican who said different. Him and his imaginary bow and arrows.
Pre-Bolt, the archetypal sprinter had been built like a Sherman tank - Ben Johnson, Leroy Burrell, Maurice Greene. There had been taller specimens - Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, Asafa Powell - but they weren't 6ft 5.
Jamaica's Usain Bolt changed the rules of sprinting in Beijing in 2008. Photo: Getty
Barely two months before the 2008 Olympics, Bolt lowered Powell's 100m world record to 9.72 seconds, in his fifth senior run over the distance. American rival Tyson Gay commented: "It looked like his knees were going past my face."
Then came Beijing and the final of the 100m - 9.69 seconds so shocking, the natural reaction was to laugh out loud. It wasn't so much that he had beaten the field by 0.2 seconds. It was more that he started mucking about after 60m. Not only a great leap forward for the tall, but for the whole of humankind.
Adam Gilchrist (Australia v Pakistan, second Test, Hobart, 1999)
In truth, several players from Australia's most recent golden age embody the ruthless streak that made that side so formidable. But none more so than wicketkeeper Gilchrist, a man who made the most death-defying sporting acts look about as nerve-jangling as a game of French cricket on Bondi Beach.
On Test debut in Brisbane, Gilchrist took five catches, made a stumping and scored a rapid 81 as Australia beat Pakistan by 10 wickets. But it was his batting display in the second Test in Hobart that left fans sensing things had changed.
Chasing an improbable 369 for victory, Australia were 125-5 when Gilchrist joined Justin Langer in the middle. Facing an attack that included Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar, the pair put on a record-breaking 238 to guide their side home, with Gilchrist making an unbeaten 149 from 163 balls.
Gilchrist, whose feats opening in one-day cricket also altered the landscape of that form of the game, would play more brutal and more important innings. But this knock made it abundantly clear that no side was safe in Test cricket any longer, whatever the situation. Especially against the Aussies.
Tiger Woods (The Masters, Augusta, 1997)
Since turning pro, Woods had won three of 15 PGA events, so something was brewing even before he arrived in Augusta. An outward nine of 40 on the opening day left the patrons wondering whether he could handle the pressure. Woods came back in 30 for a round of 70 and a share of fourth place.
On day two, the 21-year-old carded a 66 to lead by three; on day three, Woods carded a 65 to lead by nine; on day four, Woods carded a 69 to seal a 12-stroke victory, the widest margin in the history of the Masters. He also broke the tournament scoring record and became its youngest winner.
Tiger Woods elevated golf to new heights with his 1997 Masters win. Photo: Getty
While the numbers were astounding, the symbolism was more so. For Augusta National was a club that had not invited a black man to be a member until 1990. "No-one will turn their head when a black man walks to the first tee after this," said Lee Elder, the first African-American to play the Masters.
In addition, Woods ushered in the age of golfer as bona fide athlete; as analytical machine; as commercial commodity. "I'm Tiger Woods," went the famous Nike advert. Today, every professional golfer has a bit of Tiger about them.
Jonah Lomu (NZ v England, 1995 Rugby World Cup, Cape Town)
All Black wing Lomu was already a star of the tournament when he lined up against Will Carling's England for their semi-final clash in Cape Town. Roughly eighty minutes later, rugby union, already on the cusp of professionalism, looked different.
The 20-year-old Lomu - 19st, 6ft 5in and with a 100m best of 10.8 seconds - scored four tries against a shellshocked England and his first was almost disturbing in its beautiful barbarity. Especially if you were English.
Lomu, travelling sideways, collected an errant pass out wide before arcing round Tony Underwood, accelerating through the despairing cover tackle of Carling and trampling over Mike Catt as if the England full-back was nothing more inconvenient than a stuffed toy.
"I have never seen anything like that before," said Tony's big brother Rory. "He's a freak," said Carling, "and the sooner he goes away the better." Seventeen years later and you can't move for "freaks" in rugby union.
Cassius Clay (v Sonny Liston, Miami Beach, 1964)
"The kid hadn't lied," wrote Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times in his fight report. "All those interminable refrains of 'float like a butterfly, sting like a bee' had been more than foolish songs. His style was unorthodox, but..."
Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay as he was then, wasn't the first to be like him. His hero Sugar Ray Robinson, unarguably the greatest boxer of all time, was every bit as dazzling, both in and out of the ring. Only Ali had television on his side.
Furthermore, heavyweights weren't supposed to fight like Robinson, who was a natural welterweight. Heavyweights - especially black heavyweights - weren't supposed to be bright like Ali, weren't supposed to be funny like Ali, weren't supposed to be cocky like Ali.
The "human electricity" that "danced and flowed", according to Lipsyte, was the Miami crowd feasting off Ali's power. Boxing today is as Ali invented it - for better and for worse. "I shook up the world!" proclaimed Ali after his victory over Liston. Exactly how much he would continue to do so, even he couldn't have begun to imagine.