THE tag of world number one has sat heavily on the shoulders of Mark Selby. It’s a mantle he has never truly felt he deserved.
Life hasn’t been a whole lot of fun for the ‘Jester from Leicester’ in the past few months. Injury, poor form and lack of confidence blighted his belief.
Judd Trump took his place as the globe’s best and the joker wasn’t laughing any more.
But the williamhill.com UK Championship has been cathartic for Selby.
He has recovered his belief, he has rediscovered his game and, after this 10-6 defeat of Shaun Murphy, he can truly call himself number one.
For so long Selby and Murphy were like two gladiators, the green baize their arena, both trading blow and counter-blow.
It wasn’t the century-filled spectacle anticipated from two players renowned for being utterly ruthless when in the balls.
But it was tense and thrilling.
Locked at 4-4 after the first session, they scrapped again to 6-6.
Then Selby hit a telling blow. Holding his increasing nerves together, he edged ahead and then fired in a 98 break in the 14th frame to move just two frames from victory.
He was landing some mortal blows.
An under-pressure Murphy cracked in the next, over-cutting a blue to give Selby a comfortable cushion, and he held himself together just enough to take the title he has always craved.
It was a match that enthralled.
A messy opener went Murphy’s way but Selby levelled with the help of a brilliant plant, and a wonderful positional shot from black to yellow, in a winning 54.
A mis-hit safety gave Selby, who reclaimed his number one berth by getting to the final, the chance in the third – and he took it with a clinical 66.
But Murphy, as he has all week, continued to go on the attack. A stylish 83 tied the game at the first mid-session interval.
Awkward bridging meant Selby missed a red into the right corner on the restart but Murphy thundered in a quite magnificent pot and a 98 clearance once more put him back in front.
That lead was extended when a tactical sixth frame, which lasted nearly 55 minutes, went his way.
At 4-2, though, and perhaps considering how big his first session lead would be against a player who wasn’t creating frame-winning opportunities, Murphy’s laser-like long potting suddenly went off the boil.
He could have taken either of the remaining two frames of the afternoon – with Selby giving him several chances at the table – but now the balls wouldn’t drop.
A break of 70 reduced the deficit and, after Murphy missed a pink following a superb three-ball plant, Selby took advantage.
The pair were a contrast in body language in that frame – Selby striding with purpose round the table while Murphy sat rigid in his chair with his arms folded.
It was all set up for a thrilling climax in the evening and so it proved.
A 58 break from Selby looked to have given him the first frame of the session, but Murphy committed the snooker equivalent of highway robbery – a 65 clearance forcing his opponent to stand and deliver.
If it looked to the packed Barbican crowd that the theft of that frame could be an early hammer blow, they misunderstood Selby’s gritty match-play character.
This time it was Murphy to slip up.
A great red gave him a chance of going 6-4 up but his attempt to finish a yellow in the bottom pocket was abysmal.
Not only did he miss, he potted the black at the same time and Selby had fought his way back.
Then he went in front. Like most of these frames, it could have gone either way – Selby not able to capitalise and Murphy just as profligate.
But, after looking like he might clear up, the Magician missed a very difficult pink in the right corner and left Selby a present over the pocket.
Not to be outdone, however, Murphy also showed his battling qualities.
Breaks of 39 and 38 gave him the 12th frame and, after more than four hours of play, they were locked together once more at 6-6.
A 35-minute frame after the mid-session interval was edged by Selby – who fell over the line rather than bossing the encounter – and it needed one of them to take the bull by the horns.
It was Selby who did it, delivering his highest break of the match to go 8-6 ahead.
Murphy had come back from the dead against Ali Carter but this was a bridge too far for the Magician. His magic wand finally deserted him.
Selby, on the other hand, has finally lived up to the promise.
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