Can snooker afford to lose Ronnie?
The genius of Ronnie O'Sullivan is not what he can do with a snooker cue, a table and some balls. The genius of Ronnie O'Sullivan is his alchemist's knack of turning the cerebral into the visceral, while managing not to sacrifice any of the purity of a sport he plays as well as anyone has ever done.
People who do not watch snooker watch O'Sullivan, who claimed his fourth world title with victory over Ali Carter in Sheffield on Monday. Just as people who did not like tennis watched John McEnroe or people who did not like golf watched Seve Ballesteros. O'Sullivan is one of their breed.
People might smirk when seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry says his great rival is "like a rock star playing snooker", but the comparison holds true: O'Sullivan, like a rock star - and unlike most of his fellow snooker pros - has an emotional attachment with the fans. He elicits feelings of delight and pathos; of shock and awe. He demands a response in this most buttoned-up of games.
But the real joy of O'Sullivan comes from watching a man wrestling with an extravagant talent and all the mental turmoil that spawns. "He didn't lose the plot at all," said Neil Robertson after being beaten by O'Sullivan in the quarter-finals, with more than a hint of surprise. For his part, O'Sullivan said it had been a case of managing to temper his lofty, often unattainable, expectations.
For O'Sullivan's is a high-wire act, and you watch in the knowledge that the high-tariff tricks he performs and the demons within increase the likelihood of it all going horribly wrong. Which is why, when it goes right - as with his magnificent break of 92 in the seventh frame of this year's final - it feels doubly rewarding. Like watching a frayed McEnroe reel off a string of passes; or a coiled Ballesteros conjure a series of miraculous escapes.
In truth, it rarely looked like going wrong for O'Sullivan at the Crucible this year: as with his last Crucible triumph in 2008, it was a tournament in which he appeared to have his sport's number. "When he beat me in the semi-finals in 2008 [O'Sullivan won 17-6] it was as close to perfect snooker as I've ever seen," Hendry told BBC Sport. "Some of his play has been as good this year.
"He's taken the game on to another level. I changed snooker to be a more aggressive game, but Ronnie plays the same game in a much more flash and fluent way. He's the most naturally talented player we've ever seen and at the moment he's the best player in the world by a distance."
Even when Carter, channelling the spirit of his mental guru and 2002 champion Peter Ebdon, sought to drag his rival into the trenches, O'Sullivan, 36, managed to float above the squalor. As well as that run of 92, there was also a clearance of 141 and a rapid-fire 101 in Monday's opening frame. As Hendry said: "When he's on fire he can make great, great players look very, very average."
All of which makes O'Sullivan's suggestion that he might hang up his cue should snooker chief Barry Hearn not yield to his demands a little bit sad and a little bit worrying. Hearn might protest that no single player is bigger than the sport but O'Sullivan represents a disproportionately large part of the whole.
One irony of this year's World Championship was that, while lesser players were creating minor stirs with ill-advised public statements, a sharply-focused O'Sullivan was quiet as a church mouse. But still you heard the telephone conversations between journalists and editors in the press room, which can be abbreviated as follows: "How much do you want on the snooker? "Give me 500 words on Ronnie, stick everything else in a paragraph at the bottom."
"It doesn't sound like Barry Hearn is going to be begging Ronnie to stay," said Hendry, who announced his own retirement from the sport following his quarter-final defeat by Stephen Maguire. "But I wouldn't like to try and sell big tournaments to fans and sponsors without having Ronnie involved."
Hearn, perhaps betraying his inner fears, quipped: "Whatever's going through his mind now, I hope he goes and sees his doctor and sorts things out."
O'Sullivan, whose mental and domestic troubles are well documented, has threatened to retire on numerous occasions and there will be many who will have rolled their eyes and sighed at his latest pronouncement. Even his highly influential mental coach, Dr Steve Peters, sounded frustrated.
"He does find the lifestyle difficult but I think that's universal for all elite athletes," Dr Peters, team psychiatrist to the British cycling team, told BBC Sport. "But I would rather he didn't open up so much because his mind can change from day to day."
O'Sullivan punches the air in delight after clinching his fourth world title. Photo: Getty
If Dr Peters doesn't know what's coming, then perhaps nobody does. But the extra workload that Hearn's revamped 50-week, 27-event tour entails might prove to be the straw bale that breaks this thoroughbred camel's back.
Whether O'Sullivan calls it quits this season or next, the day might come soon. As O'Sullivan put it, "I'm not going to hang around for another two years for things to become fair". And Hearn will be left as the biggest personality in snooker by some distance: great for his own ego, perhaps not as healthy for the sport he surveys.
Hearn will tell himself, and anyone who cares to listen, that every revolution has its high-profile victims. And, rightly, he will point out that O'Sullivan has been threatening to bow out since he was a teenager, long before Hearn came riding to the sport's rescue in 2010 and implemented his exacting new plan.
Still, Hearn may well find himself watching O'Sullivan doing the cha-cha-cha on Strictly one day and think to himself: "What poise; what personality; what class. It was a dark day in snooker when we lost him from the baize."