Mark Selby: Losing world final to Higgins a decade ago made me snooker's number one
World champion Mark Selby tells Desmond Kane how defeat to John Higgins in the 2007 Crucible final was pivotal in his rise to the apex of the sport as he prepares to face the Scotsman in a repeat 10 years on.
On a night made for warriors, Mark Selby again showed why he is a true snooker heavyweight.
The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield is rapidly becoming a venue that looks more like his home than the King Power Stadium is for his beloved Leicester City.
Selby, the undisputed world number one, is a man with real king power in snooker as his 17-15 win against Ding in the semi-finals over 12 hours and 12 minutes of an epic battle proved. It is the four-times world champion John Higgins who is the last barrier between him and a successful defence. (Watch the final on Eurosport at 2pm).
John Higgins and Mark Selby in 2007.Eurosport
“I can’t wait,” Selby tells Eurosport. “10 years ago, one of my friends who works at the local newspaper said to me: 'Can you believe it’s been 10 years since you go to the world final playing John Higgins?'
“And now you come here for the 40th anniversary of the tournament at the Crucible: it’s a great feeling with me and John back in the final."
When one asked if he would be tuning into Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight title fight with Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium later on - a stunning stoppage win for Joshua in the 11th round after all seemed lost - Selby said: “I feel all right at the minute, but by the time 10pm comes I might be flat on my feet. We’ll see how it goes.”
Selby was still on his feet just after 6pm last night as he completed a pristine 72 break in the penultimate frame to finally see off China’s leading player, who sampled a dose of the blues after missing a blue to the middle pocket when trying to force a deciding frame.
Like last year when he downed Ding 18-14 to win the old pot for a second time, Selby – who enjoyed runs of 128, 100, 99, 96, 85, 74, 68, 67 and 64 over 32 engrossing frames of a World Championship epic - had disappointed large swathes of a watching audience approaching over 200 million in China where Ding is a national sporting icon.
Selby v Higgins is not Joshua v Klitschko, but there are parallels. Namely, Higgins at 41 is the same age as the Ukraine pugilist. Like Wlad, he will not start this match as the favourite against a bloke who is eight years younger and proving to be the outstanding player of his generation.
Higgins is a snooker time traveller having first win the world title in 1998. If the Wizard of Wishaw unearths some snooker sorcery, he becomes the oldest champion at the Crucible since Ray Reardon at the age of 45 in 1978. He would also join Ronnie O’Sullivan as a five-times world champion.
John Higgins of Scotland in action during the semi-final match against Barry HawkinsGetty Images
But unlike a decade ago, he is not the man with the key to the door on the green baize.
Higgins believes a fifth success would be his greatest against a man who he also feels is young enough to challenge Stephen Hendry’s record of seven titles at the venue.
Selby actually looks back on his 18-13 loss to Higgins in 2007, a victory that gave the Scotsman his second of four world titles, with some fondness. He does not believe he would have progressed to be such a slick operator without suffering that reverse.
“For me, getting to the final 10 years ago was more of a shock really. I came here as a qualifier, and was only 23 years old. John had reached his peak so it wasn’t a shock because everybody viewed him as one of the guys coming here expecting to win it.
“This year, it just shows how good John has been. He is 41, and is still competing at the top level winning tournaments.
“Here he is in another final. In many ways, losing to John in 2007 probably did me a favour.
"I think if I had won that match, I would have felt that I had achieved what I wanted to achieve in the game becoming world champion. Because I lost it, I never lost the hunger to win here. I thought to myself: ‘I was so close, but I really want to experience that one-table set-up again'. I was so close to becoming world champion, but because I didn’t it made me work harder on the practice table and really strive to achieve my goal and show that I could turn it around.” "
Win or lose, Selby will start next season at the top of the world rankings for a seventh straight season.
He is a multi-millionaire, a married man with wife Vikki and daughter Sofia Maria, born after his 18-14 win over O'Sullivan in the 2014 final. He is much changed from his days as a jobbing professional hoping to make a living out of sport.
Selby has been combining the duties of fatherhood with his practice sessions throughout these 17 tortuous days at the Crucible.
If you study his gait these day, you see a man who is at one with his world.
“I’ve matured a lot on and off the table. I think I’ve learnt a lot from getting to that final in 2007,” said Selby.
“Since I’ve become world champion for the first time, and got that monkey off my back, I’ve told myself I’ve achieved everything I wanted to achieved in the game.
"I’ve achieved the triple crown (the world, Masters and UK Championship treble) and won numerous ranking events in titles. If I didn’t win anything else in the game, I could retire happy. "
“But while I’m still competing, I’m still going to try hard and work hard. Everything else now is a bonus. I can go out there to enjoy my snooker.”
Selby is 2/5 to beat Higgins, who is priced at 2/1, but does not pay any attention to the odds that suggest he is strongly fancied to join Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and O’Sullivan as the only men to retain the world title in the modern era.
“Whether I’m favourite or not, I never put myself under pressure by thinking 'I’m favourite, I need to go out there to show why I’m favourite',” said Selby.
“It is just irrelevant. John is a great player who will know he is capable of winning. It is who turns up on the day. He thinks he’ll be able to win, and I’ll be thinking the same way.”
Selby paid tribute to Ding, who has performed miraculously at this tournament when you consider he lost his mum Chen Xijuan to cancer in January at the age of 55.
Selby suffered a similar ghastly blow when his father David died after fighting lung cancer when he was only 16.
“Ding is a great guy off the table, a great player on it and a world champion in the making,” said Selby.
“He came so close last year, and this year he was one win short of reaching the final.
“I think it is only a matter of time before he lifts that trophy.”
It is perhaps only a matter of time before Selby lifts that trophy, but he is not expecting a coronation at the Crucible.
He is much too wise to make such assumptions in a sport where the balls can be as unforgiving as nature.
Desmond Kane at the Crucible Theatre