With the tension tighter than Pep Guardiola’s trousers, the Betfred World Snooker championship finally came to a conclusion just after 11pm, when Mark Selby sank the final red, clenched his fists and became only the fourth man in history to retain the title. And to think, at one point it looked as though everything would be done by tea-time.
“Unbelievable,” the three time winner said. “I really thought I was out of it at one point. I’m still pinching myself I did it.”
Trading century breaks like playground Panini stickers, both refusing to yield an inch, Selby and John Higgins fought out a magnificent demonstration of switchback, fluctuating snooker. It was exhausting enough to watch, goodness only knows how draining it was to play.
Yet Selby had begun the protection of his title with about as much conviction as his beloved Leicester City had shown in the defence of theirs. Apparently suffering after his marathon semi-final win over Ding Junhui, as he lined up against the four-time champion Higgins, Selby looked off the pace, depleted, in short as if he were being coached by Claudio Ranieri. At one point on Sunday afternoon, Higgins had eased to six frames ahead, threatening to have the final completed before anyone had noticed it had started.
But fortunately for the blood pressure of Barry Hearn, the chair of World Snooker, the opportunity to seize the peak time Monday evening television audience was not lost. As he demonstrated in his first title win in 2014, if there is one thing Selby knows it is how to battle back.
Chuntering to himself in his corner between breaks, Selby began the second day of the final cagey, risk-averse, Mourinho-like in his attrition. In other words, he was back on his game.
It meant the 950 crammed into the intimate Crucible arena were confronted by a succession of safety exchanges and long, very long, frames. Several dragged on longer than many an Italian government. Everything seemed to slow the action. Once a sudden laugh from the crowd at something John Virgo had just said on the match commentary, communicated to the auditorium via ear pieces, obliged Higgins to pull up as he addressed a shot, angrily scowling his displeasure into the camera.
But in truth it wasn’t Virgo’s audition for Live at The Apollo that was undermining him. He was playing the most relentless spoiler in the game, the master of blocking opportunity. After first neutralising his opponent, the world No1 then seized the initiative. Soon enough Selby hauled back the deficit, then with his eye in, his back ramrod straight, his shot choice unwavering, he eased into a lead, finishing the afternoon 13-11 up. Higgins looked increasingly bamboozled, baffled, close to being battered, all too aware that Selby in this mood is an unfathomable force.
If john Higgins can't beat selby at the crucible then no one can
— Ronnie O'Sullivan (@ronnieo147) May 1, 2017
To stem the tide, the Scot needed to win the first frame of the evening. He didn’t, Selby did, taking just 18 minutes to apply further tightening of the thumb screws. In the next frame, Higgins thought he had left Selby with nothing to pot. But the champion put away a red he had no right to do, applying a perfect fade and drifting it into the middle pocket. Only one point, maybe, but indicative of his growing superiority, which had propelled the resolute, whey-faced champion to a seemingly insurmountable 16-12 lead when the mid evening break was taken.
But then, facing oblivion, Higgins extracted his fingernails from the window ledge and magnificently hauled himself back, winning three frames on the bounce. In the 31st, the Scot, who had apparently run over every black cat in Sheffield on his way to the Crucible, finally got a stroke of luck. Referee Jan Verhaas ratcheted up the tension by sparking a did-he-didn’t-he debate as to whether Selby, in the attempt to forge a snooker, had in fact touched the black. Selby insisted he had; Verhaas thought he hadn’t. The video referee couldn’t decide, so Verhaas stuck with his decision, threatening to send Selby into a spiral of dismay.
— Ken Doherty Official (@kendoherty1997) May 1, 2017
But the champion recovered once again, posted a century break in the very next frame and, clinical, cold and determined, took advantage of a Higgins foul on the green to finish things off in the 33rd frame, picking up the £350,000 winner’s cheque in the process. Now as a champion who retains his title, Selby joins Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan in the most elite collective in the game. And the manner in which he retained his nerve against the onslaught at the other side of the table suggests he is not remotely out of place in such company.