RONNIE O'Sullivan, who has taken a sabbatical from snooker after having grown tired of the game, could make a sensational return to defend his world title.

The four-time Crucible champion has taken the rest of this season off to spend more time with his children, family and father, Ronnie Senior, now that he has been released from a 18-year jail sentence for murder.

However, Barry Hearn, the chairman of World Snooker, has revealed that he and O'Sullivan have had secret meetings to discuss the possibility about the player returning in time for the sports biggest tournament, which runs from April 20 until May 6 at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

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Hearn admitted: "I have said to Ronnie that the only tournament for us if he wanted to change his mind – and that is not unknown – is the world championships.

"We are not sure exactly when the closing date for that would be, maybe the end of January, and I will call him and make sure he knows when it is. Then he has the option, and it is his decision.

"We know exactly how much interest that would generate, clearly more so as the defending world champion after taking most of a season out.

"We didn't want to lose Ronnie at all for the profile he brings. The last time we spoke, he was still intent on missing the season, but he is infamous for changing direction, so who knows.

"One thing that will not have escaped Ronnie's attention, because he loves his sport, is how uncompetitive Ricky Hatton was on his return to the ring.

"Snooker is so competitive now that he will know you either take it 100% seriously, or don't play at all. That will be the issue in his mind.

"He is not going to play for first-round loser's money, or come back to the stage he has graced and given so much pleasure to be embarrassed.

"It is probably a decision forever, and the longer it goes the more likely it is it's a decision forever.

"He got beaten by a lowly ranked player earlier in this season, but he's not going to do anything stupid and come back just for the sake of it."

Former world champion Ken Doherty and two-time Crucible finalist Ali Carter would both welcome the O'Sullivan's return for the greatest prize in the sport.

"What a great story it would be if he just came back for the world championship," said Doherty. "It would create such a buzz and such an excitement for the players and the snooker fans.

"I definitely think Ronnie has so much more to offer the game. He can do so much more.

"I know he's won four world titles and he could have won a couple more, but he's still got time to add to that total.

"It's not beyond the realms of possibility that he could win five, six, or seven world titles if he wanted to. If his mind was in it and his heart was in it, then there's no doubt he could do that."

Ali Carter said: "I think he will be back for the world championships, no matter what everyone says now. There is no way that Ronnie O'Sullivan will miss that, in my opinion, as a fellow Essex lad."