But the “Rocket” returns on Monday with a welcome 10-7 lead after the opening two sessions of their best-of-35 frame showdown here in Sheffield.
O’Sullivan, the defending champion, is going for a fifth world title having never lost a final in Sheffield. This latest attempt has come after the 37-year-old took a year away from the sport to try and deal with personal issues. He was installed as overwhelming favourite against the 34-year-old Hawkins, who, before this year, had never got past the last 16 in seven attempts.
Victory for Hawkins today would represent the biggest shock in a world final since Joe Johnson toppled Steve Davis, the six-time winner, 27 years ago. But the world No 14 knocked out world No 1 Mark Selby and the much-fancied Ding Junhui in earlier rounds – before seeing off Ricky Walden in the semi-finals.
And he showed that reaching the showpiece was no fluke by recovering after an early O’Sullivan onslaught in the first session.
O’Sullivan, ranked No 28 in the world after his 12 months off, rattled in early breaks of 74 and 92 as he went chasing the £250,000 first prize. But Hawkins rallied with runs of 88 and 81 to level before moving ahead at 3-2, meaning O’Sullivan was behind in a match for the first time at this year’s event.
O’Sullivan took up the challenge and with breaks of 76, 113 and 100 brought his tally of centuries at the Crucible to 127 – equalling Stephen Hendry’s record – to establish a 5-3 lead. He moved 7-5 up at the interval, but Hawkins hit back with runs of 83 and 133 to level matters and left an intriguing finish to the evening session.
Successive centuries – 103 and 106 – took O’Sullivan 9-7 ahead and then he pinched the last frame of the session to keep himself favourite to defend his crown.
Win or lose, O’Sullivan has threatened to quit again after this year’s final. The four-time world champion has revealed his next step is likely to be building himself a career in property.
“My dream would probably be [to be] a property developer,” said O’Sullivan. “I love Homes Under the Hammer. I’ve had a taste of it as well. I used to go around with a mate and we used to buy a lot of stuff.
“I used to get bored so he’d say, ‘I’ll teach you the property game’, so I’ve got a rough idea about it. But snooker was my game so I couldn’t get too involved.”
O’Sullivan is a clear favourite to win this year’s final. But despite wiping the floor with the field after a 12-month break, O’Sullivan is still making plans outside of the sport.
“I don’t want to do something just for the money, for the celebrity status, like Big Brother or something like that,” added O’Sullivan. “I love the show but putting myself through it, I couldn’t do it.
“I’ve been to a couple of property auctions. My mate said to me: ‘It’s a good day out. We’ll have a laugh.’ I’ve never bought at one. Apparently Gary Neville goes to them. It was in London, a big one. It was out of my league. I don’t know how he does it really, he must be doing all right for himself.
“I know that I need an outlet. Snooker’s not going to go on forever and having that year out made me realise it was my job. But I don’t want to find myself trapped in a sport that I know is going to end one day and find myself in the position that I was for the last 12 months.
“It was a bit of a reality check and that’s why I’m thankful for what snooker has given to me. But I’ve got some good friends and they want to help me set myself up so that I don’t have to rely on snooker so much.”