SHAUN MURPHY won the recent European Tour event in Bulgaria playing the ultra-attacking game which saw him capture the world title almost a decade ago. The question coming to Chengdu was whether, with more money, prestige and therefore pressure at the International Championship, he would adopt quite the same approach. On the evidence of his 6-1 thrashing of Yu Delu on Monday, the answer appears to be yes.
Murphy always was a sight to behold in full flow. A devastating long potter, at his best he has that quality in his body language that he owns the place – not just the table but the arena and very probably the town as well.
After winning the World Championship in 2005 he worked hard on his tactical game, wanting to become more of an all-round player. Fair enough, but his strength has always lain in going on the attack and putting his opponents under pressure, fearful that even a good safety shot won’t quite be good enough.
Murphy was not himself pressured much by Yu, who made too many elementary errors to threaten an upset, but this was perhaps in part because of Murphy’s form and confidence at the moment.
And Murphy has never lacked for confidence, on or off the table. What was frustrating him, though, in recent times was his tendency to get close to winning titles and then fade with the finish line in sight. However, he has now won three titles in 2014. Players often have purple patches when they reach a bunch of finals in a row and Murphy will be hoping that this is one for him. It’s a big few weeks, with Chengdu, followed by the Champion of Champions, a European Tour event in Germany and then the UK Championship.
A pumped up Shaun Murphy would be in contention for any and all of these titles as long as he maintains his self belief and stays positive.
And that’s the problem with snooker: it doesn’t take much for your confidence to be knocked. It may be a frame you lose after your opponent needed a snooker or a kick that costs you or any number of other misfortunes and errors. Mental strength, ultimately, as is important as talent.
The International Championship may only be in its third staging but this is a prestigious event, with a £125,000 first prize. The format was envisaged to mirror that of the UK championship, with best of 17 frame semi-finals, but the Boxing Helena of tournaments has suffered another cut, with the York semis reduced to best of 11s so that matches virtually no one will watch early on can be accommodated at the venue.
Ironically, there’s room in Chengdu to take all 128 players but instead a qualifying round was held in Barnsley which saw Mark Selby and, more damagingly for the tournament, Ding Junhui eliminated. A compromise involving holding over matches is already being discussed for next year.
As for this year, Murphy is certainly among the favourites to last the course. You don’t get much out of modern sport for being cautious. The winners are those who go for it, take command and look for ways to win.
Murphy is in winning mood right now, revelling in the spirit of 2005 when he authored one of snooker’s great stories. He just hopes there are many more chapters still to write.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.