Ronnie O’Sullivan shrugged off suggestions of greatness on the eve of his bid to eclipse Stephen Hendry and become the first player to win eight world snooker titles in the modern era.

O’Sullivan is already routinely described as the best player to pick up a cue after a record-breaking career that includes eight Masters and eight UK titles within a total of 41 ranking tournament wins.

But the 48-year-old, who starts his first round match against Welsh qualifier Jackson Page on Wednesday, has never been one to pore over the record books, and questions whether such plaudits are worth having at all.

“I don’t regard myself as the greatest of all time,” said O’Sullivan. “Statistically I suppose I am, but I’m just happy to be playing.

“I suppose as a kid I would have been desperate to be up with those guys but when you get there it’s a bit of an anti-climax – it’s not as great as you thought it would be.”

O’Sullivan, who won his first world title in 2001, currently sits on seven alongside Hendry, with Davis and Ray Reardon one behind on six wins each.

Yet while the title-winning eras of those fellow greats spanned less than a decade, O’Sullivan’s longevity, which shows all the signs of pushing on beyond a quarter of a century, makes the reign of the ‘Rocket’ indisputably unique.

“I’ve had a different career to them,” added O’Sullivan. “They just did it over a 10-year period while I’ve sort of gone off track for five or six years, then got myself back together, then disappeared for another three years, then got myself back together again.

“I was a bit all over the shop really, stuff going on off the table that can affect how you perform. Hendry and Davis had everything fitted around them to focus on snooker, but that’s how it worked out for me, so I’ve had to go on longer.”

“I love playing, I enjoy it. I get to travel where I want, take time off when I want, be my own boss. It’s those little things, and you want to win because competitiveness has always been in me.

Amid more top-level retirement talk, with Mark Selby the latest to question his future in the sport after his first round defeat to Joe O’Connor, O’Sullivan appears to be heading back to the Crucible intent on many more attempts to increase his legacy.

He has linked up with a new coach and is clearly putting the effort in ahead of his opener against 22-year-old Page, who beat Barry Hawkins on his Crucible debut two years ago before suffering a heavy defeat to Mark Williams in round two.

O’Sullivan added: “I love playing, I enjoy it. I get to travel where I want, take time off when I want, be my own boss. It’s those little things, and you want to win because competitiveness has always been in me.

“I’m pretty cool with what I’ve done and I’d like to keep winning more. Whether that makes me the greatest or not, I don’t know. It really doesn’t matter.”

Barry Hawkins will return to the Crucible this year convinced he has proved a point to those who questioned whether he still had the hunger to pursue a second appearance in a World Snooker Championship final.

Hawkins’ relatively serene progress within the game’s elite – peaking with his 2013 final loss to Ronnie O’Sullivan – was rudely interrupted last year when he dropped out of the top 16 and failed to qualify for Sheffield the first time in 17 years.

But while the 44-year-old admits he too started to doubt his ability to return, a stellar current season, capped by his ending a seven-year wait for a fourth ranking title at the European Masters in August, will send him back to Sheffield in good heart.

“I know sometimes I come across like I’m not hungry enough, but it must be in there somewhere or I wouldn’t have been around as long as I have,” Hawkins told the PA news agency. “You need that hunger or you’re not going to succeed.

“I was devastated to miss out last year and for my run to come to an end. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so low about snooker.

“Inevitably, when you’ve played in ranking finals and massive arenas, your ranking starts to drop and you can’t help but start wondering if you’re on the slippery slope to retirement.

“It’s hard to keep that sustainability and that mindset, but I got my nose back in the top 16 and I set my goal to be seeded for the Crucible. I’ve bounced back this season and after winning the title in Germany I feel like my game is in good shape.”

Hawkins evolved into one of the Crucible’s most consistent performances in the wake of his run to the 2013 final, embarking on a run that would see him reach four semi-finals and one quarter over the next five years, including an epic 13-12 second-round win over O’Sullivan in 2016.

But his seemingly effortless progress belied a story of gritty resilience for the mild-mannered Hawkins, who failed to reach Sheffield for nine straight years before booking his place at the 10th attempt in 2006 – only to lose 10-1 to Ken Doherty.

“My immediate reaction was, thank God it’s over,” recalled Hawkins. “I was only young and I was completely demoralised, but at the same time I remember coming off and thinking, ‘I want to get back in there’.

“I couldn’t have imagined that I was going to go and play there so many times, have some unbelievable runs and beat some of the greatest players. It seems like a distant memory now but I suppose it did toughen me up for what was ahead.”

One of only a handful of current players to have proved he has the stamina for the 17-day Crucible slog, Hawkins, who is also a two-time Masters finalist, has renewed hope that could crown his career with a coveted ‘triple crown’ title.

“As the years go by the belief slowly dwindles that you are going to win one of the big ones,” he added.

“But you’ve just got to keep punching and live in hope, because you never know when it could happen. It could come completely out of the blue.

“One thing’s for sure, if I finish my career and I haven’t managed it, it won’t be through lack of trying.”

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