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FOR the winner of the World Snooker Championship, jubilation and celebration are always mixed with a sense of relief.
Once that final ball is potted, the last battle of wits comes to an end, and the weight of weeks of unflinching concentration is lifted, even the most steely snooker face can’t help but crack a smile.
For 2021 World Snooker Champion Mark Selby, these emotions were manifested in his final clearance on Sunday night.
After Shaun Murphy missed a red along the cushion with the score at 57-38 in his favour, Selby sauntered around the table producing snooker of the highest quality.
Eight shots combining consideration and conviction summed up Selby’s championship and his success.
It was a measured clearance under the circumstances and included an excellent positional shot around the table to get on the final black, which he potted to secure the win by 18 frames to 15.
In doing so the 37-year-old completed his fourth World Championship win, putting him up there with the game’s greats — on par with John Higgins and just two behind Ray Reardon, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Steve Davis.
In an era of shortened format sport and proposed super leagues designed to make events more digestible for TV, this was long-form sport at its finest.
The semi-finals and final were played across five days and consisted of 94 frames in total. In many ways, the semis stole the show, just as they did last year when Kyren Wilson and Anthony McGill played out a memorable epic.
Both McGill and Wilson were involved again. McGill was knocked out in the quarters by one of this championship’s standout players, Stuart Bingham, while Wilson was on the end of a marvellous Murphy comeback in the semis.
Bingham was aiming to become the first winner since Murphy in 2005 to lift the trophy after coming through the qualifiers but fell to Selby 17-15 in another Crucible epic.
The 31st frame of this match started after 6pm on Saturday, with the players having to return the same evening for a fifth session after the conclusion of the other semi-final. This year, there was no evening off ahead of the final for the winner of either semi.
The single-table set-up, introduced when just four players remain in the competition, can make the semi-final and final appear to blend into one.
The narratives carry across from those matches more than they do from the early rounds, and the incrementally increased capacity in the Crucible Theatre, as part of the government’s Events Research Programme, added extra resonance to this snooker crescendo.
It’s perhaps fitting that this year’s Championship was won by Selby. The “Jester from Leicester” as he’s billed, is a player criticised in some quarters for his slow play and methodical snooker, but this doesn’t do him justice. Though he’s at times a joker, he’s no fool.
Selby is just as adept at facets of the game associated with players considered entertaining and attacking, but he has the supreme matchplay and shot selection to go with it.
A promising start to the final from Murphy saw him 6-4 up at one point, but by frame 15 he was constantly playing catch-up.
Murphy was generally in good form, though, knocking in difficult long reds and often matching Selby in safety battles on the final day, but he never quite recovered the deficit despite some effective attacking play.
There were five century breaks in the final and this year’s tournament managed to break the record for centuries — the total of 108 edging past the 100 made in 2019.
The final’s first didn’t arrive until frame 21, but Murphy made two of the five in the last three frames to put pressure on Selby in those closing moments.
It was a snooker match-play clinic from Selby, who also produced several entertaining moments of his own.
A long pot from the 20th frame of the final was chosen by the BBC as the third-best shot of the tournament and he completed one clearance without removing the extension from his cue. His cue power and positional play were also there, for the most part, when needed.
“He’s just super-granite isn’t he,” Murphy said as he was interviewed by the BBC’s Hazel Irvine in the theatre following the match.
“Unfortunately for me, I’ve known him since we were nine years of age and he’s always been like this.
“I started the match well and he just went into super-hard mode and broke me last night. The three-frame lead was a tough lead to give him overnight in a match of this calibre.”
There were a smattering of boos for Selby as he entered the theatre for the final session, but there were only cheers by the end.
“Absolutely incredible,” Selby said. “Every time you get to a world final you always try your hardest because it’s such a tough tournament to get to and you never know whether it’s going to be your last or not.
“To win it once against O’Sullivan for the first time was a dream come true, but to win it four times is something I could only dream of.”
The level of snooker was high across the championship, as indicated by the century breaks record being broken, but once it comes down to that single table in front of a packed Crucible, it’s a battle of wits as much as anything else.
It’s about remaining composed, trusting a technique honed during years of practice, and remaining focused on that 12’ by 6’ table.
This is when Selby comes into his own, and of the five World finals he’s appeared in, he’s won the most recent four. This latest triumph reinforces his status as one of snooker’s greats.
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