We don’t yet know the first round draw for the Betfair World Championship but from today I will be looking (in no particular order) at the ten main contenders – in my opinion – for the title, beginning with the 2005 champion.
“Getting to the semi-finals is OK but it’s not what I came here for and getting to a lot of quarter and semi-finals isn’t what I dreamed of as a child.”
This was Shaun Murphy’s reaction to his 6-2 semi-final defeat to Mark Selby at the recent China Open. Since winning his last ranking title, the 2011 PTC Grand Finals, Murphy has, in ranking events and the Masters, appeared in the quarter-finals at least of 15 of the 21 tournaments played.
This run includes two finals and seven semi-finals and points to great consistency but, as Murphy himself says, it’s titles he wants.
Why hasn’t he converted any of these runs into silverware? The obviously answer is that the further you go in a tournament, the harder the opposition becomes and the harder it therefore is to win a title.
But Murphy is a world and UK champion. Indeed, as the years pass it should not be forgotten just what a remarkable achievement it was for him to win the world title in 2005 as a qualifier.
He beat some of the game’s best match players – John Higgins, Steve Davis and Peter Ebdon – to reach the final. Level at 16-16 with Matthew Stevens and with the pressure well and truly on, he finished off with two big breaks, 97 and 83, to secure the trophy.
He’s won titles since, some big and some small, and is firmly established as one of the world’s best.
Murphy’s technique and cue action is purred over by pundits and his general temperament is strong. He often plays really well in adversity, as he proved from 8-4 down to Ali Carter in the UK Championship semi-finals, winning five frames with a blitz of attacking snooker and big breaks.
I know little of how players fill their days and how hard they practice but Shaun has always seemed to me to be fully dedicated to his profession. I’m sure he puts the work in.
So what, if anything, needs to change?
There have been times when he’s lost and not seemed particularly disappointed. This could be misleading: some players keep their emotions in check in public and then rage in private. It could also be because he has been satisfied by his own performance despite the result.
However, looking back at Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry, when they lost they bristled with anger and hurt. At times they literally couldn’t speak.
John Higgins, another great champion, has at times refused to do interviews after losing. Ronnie O’Sullivan has similarly been testy and terse with the media in the aftermath of defeat.
To some all of this behaviour from seasoned champions is unprofessional, but it is also a visceral, human reaction to losing.
I’m sure Murphy hates losing as much as anyone but perhaps his love of the game is such that defeats don’t fire him up in the way they may some other players. He just looks forward to the next event.
This is in many ways a laudable attitude and certainly makes for a happier life than one spent brooding about every defeat.
But he wants titles. He wants that feeling back of being the last man standing.
I’m not suggesting that the path to success is to be unprofessional because there is no logic in that but maybe Murphy needs to stop enjoying it so much, to treat snooker, as some other players do, as a bit of a trial.
It sounds like odd advice, I admit, but it’s worth remembering that his path to becoming world champion began when he very nearly dropped off the circuit, long before he became a comfortable member of the top 16. Back then he had to really fight for his career and, as we know, Murphy in adversity is a fearsome prospect.
Because there’s no obvious technical or psychological reason why he can’t return to the winners’ circle.
If Murphy fell under a bus tomorrow – stay away from buses Shaun – he would go to his grave as a world snooker champion, a member of a select club who have scaled the highest peak of the sport. All young boys who pick up a cue dream of such glory.
But I’m sure he’d like to win it again. Can he do so this year? Yes, of course he can. He’s a world class player and he’s lasted the distance at the Crucible before.
Another quarter or semi-final exit, though, would be a frustrating way to end a consistent campaign but one not illuminated by the shimmering of silverware.