What a difference a day makes. A completely invigorated Mark Selby won six of the seven frames played in the first session of the final day’s play at the world championship in Sheffield to put himself in the box seat to retain his title.
The 33-year-old from Leicester was unrecognisable from the bottomed-out, thin-lipped spectre who stubbornly rallied to win the previous night’s last three frames to keep himself in contention. Short of lopping off his cueing arm overnight, it was inconceivable he could have played as poorly again but a 6-1 win in the opening session of the tournament’s closing day will have been beyond his wildest dreams. His opponent, the four‑times world champion John Higgins, has been left staring down the barrel and facing one of the greatest tests of his career.
Going into Monday night’s denouement, Selby had won nine of the previous 10 frames and was once again the favourite to lift the £375,000 first prize. Should he prevail, it will take his winnings this season past the £1m threshold and ensure he cannot be ousted from the position he has held as world No1 for 116 weeks for at least another year. For now, his focus was on a famous two‑handled trophy with acanthus leaf decoration and a lid surmounted by a slender silver lady. Well, that and the biggest cheque of his career.
He will not care but this was not one for the showreel. Given the presence of two of snooker’s more dogged competitors this final was always likely to be attritional but such a description scarcely does justice to several early frames that threatened to go on forever. By the mid-session interval, Selby had scrambled three of the four to reduce his arrears to one with the score at 11-10 and a break of 78 providing the only respite for Higgins. Ironically it came during a frame in which the Scot somehow pulled off the same preposterously improbable in-off three times in as many shots, injecting some much-needed mirth to proceedings that were not so much tense as tedious.
Listening to various snooker alickadoos and former champions who haunt the backstage corridors of the Crucible before play resumed, it would have been charitable to value the worth of their two cents at such a premium. The Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman famously opined “nobody knows anything” and even their informed predictions came punctuated with one caveat after another. The consensus seemed to be Selby had rather lost the plot in going 10-4 down the previous day but had surprised nobody with the demonstration of iron will that won him the final three frames. No one foresaw what was to come.
The opening two frames could scarcely have been scrappier but both went to the defending champion as Higgins found good luck or a decent good look-in hard to come by. A cagey first featured good and bad safety from both players, with Selby harvesting a few points per visit until the frame was put beyond his opponent. After what seemed like an eternity in the second, purists were treated to the horrifying sight of all 12 remaining reds in the wrong half of the table rubbing shoulders with five of the six colours. Failing to summon the spirit of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s famously quick five-minute maximum, Selby made it five consecutive unanswered frames with a painstakingly crafted 40 in almost twice that time.
With the score at 10-9 and his overnight lead evaporating, a distracted and flustered Higgins needed to put a stop to Selby’s increasingly relentless gallop. He did so with his first decent run among the balls, a 78 in a third frame that had originally threatened to go horribly wrong. Snookered behind the yellow, he played long off two cushions to go in-off the brown, not once … not twice … but three times, prompting increasingly raucous ovations from the crowd. Higgins could not help but see the funny side as a highly amused Selby gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up but the Scot enjoyed the last laugh by eventually escaping to put his first points of note on the board. A good final had just got a little bit better.
A missed yellow by Higgins with the scores at 40-43 allowed in Selby to clear up the colours in a bitty fourth of 45 minutes duration that had the whiff about it of a potential match-changer. Instead of restoring his overnight three-frames advantage with increasingly few to play, Higgins went into the mid-session interval leading by one. As the game opened up, Selby wrapped up the final three frames of a session curtailed by slow play with a minimum of fuss, scoring 221 points without reply. He needs five more frames to lift his third world title and despite the slenderness of his lead seemed unlikely to blow it.