Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy are good friends who grew up learning their trade in the mid-1990s on the then thriving English junior circuit, which offered to young hopefuls the opportunity to play not just snooker but competitive snooker, with its attendant highs and lows.
This was the professional era which Stephen Hendry dominated and featured the emergence of Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams from fresh talents to champions. Back then, as boys, Selby and Murphy would watch the TV finals dreaming of emulating these greats. And they have. They’ve won major titles: Murphy is a world and UK champion and Selby a UK and Masters winner.
But between them they have won seven full ranking titles, a tally on the low side for two such skilled, disciplined players who continually show their support for snooker by playing whatever and wherever the event.
One of them has to win the Haikou World Open on Sunday. Selby is looking for his fourth ranking title from 11 finals and Murphy his fifth from nine.
There was little to commend Selby’s semi-final win over Marco Fu other than it was a win, but when he beat Murphy to win the 2012 UK Championship, Murphy afterwards pointed out that Selby has a knack of being able to graft out results while not at his best and of disrupting his opponent’s natural rhythm so that their standard drops.
When Selby is flowing, he is a heavy scorer, and the two sides of his game have made him highly effective. He is also notoriously strong in close matches, and from a few frames behind. The ability to do it under pressure is a rare asset but one he has.
Murphy knows all about close matches, having beaten Ding Junhui 5-4 in the last 16, Graeme Dott 5-4 with a fluked black in the quarter-finals and Mark Allen 6-4 in the semis, with Allen going in-off a re-spot in what proved to be the last frame.
When he lost 6-1 to Selby in the Masters semi-finals in January, Murphy seemed to be in the pits of despair, even questioning his future in a BBC interview. He was utterly frustrated at coming so close, so often to winning a title, only to fade in the final furlong.
His season seemed to turn on the maximum break he made in the Gdynia Open in Poland, a tournament he would win. It was his first trophy for 29 months and he has looked confident ever since.
Slimmed down through dieting, he also feels better in himself. Some of the old swagger has returned. He is winning matches against the players around him in the rankings.
These two are evenly matched. I think Murphy needs to be aggressive and try and get in front early on. If Selby dictates the style of match then it will be to his obvious advantage.
Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy are two cheerful, friendly but fiercely determined players who love nothing more than a battle. They may well have one before the World Open final is resolved.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.