Mark Selby was crowned UK champion at York, but injury nearly scuppered his snooker career. Richard Hercock reports.
Mark Selby has been a pain in the neck to live with this past year after a serious injury put his snooker career in jeopardy.
The world No 1 crashed out in the early stages of the World Championship in April at Sheffield’s Crucible to cap a miserable time on the table which eventually cost him his top ranking position.
So the first person the Leicester potter thanked when he lifted the williamhill.com UK Championship shortly after midnight on Sunday was his long-suffering wife Vikki Layton.
The 29-year-old’s 10-6 victory over Shaun Murphy at the York Barbican not only saw him finally put months of misery – caused by a trapped nerve in his neck – behind him but also helped him regain his No 1 ranking from rising star Judd Trump.
“Since my neck injury has gone, I have been struggling for confidence going to tournaments, not really performing,” Selby admitted. “I have been coming home and getting a bit down on myself, taking my work home and taking it out on Vikki.
“Hopefully, the neck injury won’t come back, if it does I’ll have to cross that bridge when it comes.
“I did have some doubts after the injury, but I always felt that I could get back and play well in tournaments again. At the same time, the confidence was gone and I’m still getting that back now.
“I have got to take a lot of confidence from winning in York, but with my expectations as a player I am a little bit disappointed with my performance. As far as I am concerned, I missed too many easy balls.
“I love the game and when you’re sat at home watching other people winning tournaments it is quite upsetting. I practice four or five hours a day, and I want to be playing all the time.”
The final wasn’t a classic, with neither player managing a century break, and Selby admitted he had not played to his best in York.
“It’s a really proud and special moment,” he said. “I’m a bit disappointed with the performance but a win’s a win. Over the whole tournament I’ve only played well in frames rather than matches, and I’ve only really played well in patches, and here I am sat as the UK champion. It’s strange.
“I think there were four or five frames where I got 40 or 50 points in front and then Shaun would give me golden chances to win the frame and I didn’t finish them.
“I missed a lot of easy balls. I put a lot of pressure on myself going out there because it’s not every day you get to a UK final.”
Selby has had his critics as world No 1, having reached the pinnacle through consistency in events yet never having won either of the sport’s top two titles, the UK or world championships. Until now, that is.
He believes losing the top ranking for a month to Trump has helped him refocus, and recognises the pressure of being No 1 had a detrimental effect on his game.
“I need to relax more, a lot of the time I go out there and try too hard,” said the two-time Masters champion. “It seems to make me play worse. I just need to relax and smash some balls about.
“In a way, as bad as my injury was with my neck, it probably had a plus side as well because at one stage it was looking like I might not ever play again and now I am sat here and competing.
“The neck injury can come back but as long as I keep getting treatment and don’t do anything stupid, I should be okay.”
And as for his critics?
“I don’t really care about what people think, whether I am worthy of No 1,” he added. “I suppose when I was at No 1, I wasn’t performing to a high level, because of my confidence, so they have a right to say that.
“I probably wasn’t performing like a world No 1 but rankings don’t lie at the end of the day. It was great to get through the semi-finals knowing I had got my No 1 spot back, and this is just the icing on the cake.”
The final was a battle between two of snooker’s big guns, with former UK and world champion Murphy and Selby never more than a frame apart as they went into the evening mid-session interval locked at 6-6.
At that time, it looked like a 2am finish was on the cards, but Selby managed to step up a gear and Murphy admitted afterwards he was unable to keep up.
“Fair play to Mark – he played some very good shots and that’s why he’s the champion,” said Murphy.
“Going into tonight it was best of 11, which is what we’ve been playing all week.
“I felt very positive and when I stole the first frame I really fancied the job, but in the last session he moved up a couple of gears and I didn’t keep up.
“In any sport you can only take so much punishment, but it’s the frames you know you should win that really hurt you and there were plenty of those for me.
“I’m very pleased for Mark, he’s one of my best mates, I feel some of the criticism he’s had over the last year has been unfair and unfounded, and been said by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
“He can only try his best. This victory will be all the sweeter for him because of all he has been through.
“I came here with a new idea, going back to my old attacking style, and it got me the runners-up spot, so I’m going to go back and do some more practise, because I’ve got a PTC event in Scotland next week.”