Mark Selby has much to do if he is to join Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan in the elite club of champions to have successfully defended the world snooker title at the Crucible Theatre.
The 33-year-old trails the four-times champion John Higgins 10-7 after two sessions of this best-of-35-frames final but was at times so out of sorts he will have gone to bed mightily relieved the deficit he must overcome is not a great deal more.
At one point more than halfway through the second session he was six frames behind and foundering, but his late and improbable rally has left this final nicely poised.
In 2007 Higgins beat Selby to win his second world final but this time the Englishman, who celebrates his 116th consecutive week as world No1 on Monday, began as hot favourite to secure his third title in four years.
This was expected to be attritional and so it came to pass, with Higgins playing catch-up as the players exchanged the first four frames. The pick of them featured a superb 141 break from the Scot, the joint highest in world final history.
At times Higgins played as well as he has ever done but, like Selby, he was also guilty of showing his worst. In the claustrophobic confines of the Crucible, with a record first prize of £375,000 on offer, it was perhaps understandable. Despite uncharacteristic errors the combatants rattled in 11 half-centuries or better between them in the day’s 17 frames.
The raffish Selby, formally dressed with his short, dark hair slicked back, resembles a figurine groom plucked from atop a wedding cake.
Eight years his rival’s senior and with the salt-and-pepper hair to show for it, the 41-year-old Higgins was equally well turned out but looks more like the father of the bride. His opening shot, the first of this final, drew a rap of appreciation from his opponent but a loose subsequent positional shot meant it was Selby who took first blood with a nerve-settling 76. Good play, awful play, great play: a long day’s tone was set.
Following the first mid-session interval successive breaks of 63, 95, 58 and 49 enabled Higgins to roar into a 6-2 lead, with a series of baffling Selby mistakes leaving the champion rolling his eyes in frustration.
The rot was stopped with a break of 86 to begin the evening action but, looking drained by his marathon semi-final win over Ding Junhui, Selby lost two edgy, scrappy and error-strewn frames. In one he undercooked an attempt to snooker Higgins by rolling up behind the green without hitting it.
Put back in, and clearly baffled by his own ineptitude, he escaped but left a difficult frame-winning opportunity which his opponent did not squander. To nobody’s great surprise Higgins quickly returned the favour by missing a straight pink to the middle to allow Selby to reduce the deficit to a more manageable four frames. It was that sort of day.
A stop-start second session, in which Selby found himself 10-4 down at his lowest ebb, spluttered into life with three frames left. Breaks of 84 and a magnificent 121 stopped this final from getting away from the defending champion before he eventually prevailed in a bitty final frame which both players did their best to lose.
Celebrating four decades of the Crucible as the home of snooker in a recent documentary, Steve Davis said the venue’s tales “are crafted stories, chapter after chapter … stories within stories”.
After 16 days this year’s who-wunnit is almost over but the reigning champion’s heroic determination and iron will point to further plot twists.