Mark Selby looked an unlikely world champion when myself and some other members of the travelling snooker circuit found him at 1am in a hotel lobby in Shanghai in 2002 trying to arrange transport to the venue. When we asked him why, he replied he was playing at 2.30 – in the afternoon. So jet-lagged was he that he failed to realise it was actually night.
He was 18 and inexperienced, in both life and snooker, but the boy has become a man and then some.
There were more talented juniors than Selby, even in the Leicester area from where he hails, but few have his toughness, his will to win and his determination to work hard.
He was helped early in his career by Malcolm Thorne, a club manager and organiser of countless junior tournaments that the best young players in the UK competed in. Selby’s father died when he was 16 but Thorne kept him on the straight and narrow.
In Shanghai in 2002, despite the confusion about what time it was, he beat Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan to reach the semi-finals. In 2003 he reached the Scottish Open final.
But he was still young and naïve and, like many a young and naïve snooker player before him, got involved in a management deal which he later regretted.
His form suffered, but in 2006 he unexpectedly beat John Higgins in the first round of the World Championship and a year later faced him in the final.
He was beaten but had arrived on the big stage. The following year he won his first ranking title, beating O’Sullivan 9-8 from 8-5 down in the Welsh Open final, and captured the Masters.
He would win the game’s premier invitation event on a further two occasions, although could only add two more ranking titles to his tally until his stunning Crucible triumph.
Who is Mark Selby? He has been saddled with the Jester from Leicester tag, and indeed does like a laugh, but it amounts to little more than making the odd gag in the arena to relieve tension.
What he does have is genuine humility, in victory or defeat. He likes people. Just half an hour before the second session of the world final on Sunday night he was happily posing for photos with snooker fans outside the Crucible.
He doesn’t act like a superstar because he isn’t one. He’s a snooker player. That’s all he wants to be. It’s what he’s worked to be, and he’s worked harder than most.
He enjoys his life with his wife, Vicky, who often accompanies him on the circuit, watching nervously in the arena.
Selby’s style of play isn’t to everyone’s taste. He doesn’t intend it to be. He’s there to win, and tonight he has won.
There is a line in a Don McLean song: And while the king was looking down the jester stole his thorny crown.
And at the Crucible, somewhat against the odds, it was the jester who had the last laugh as the king of snooker was, for once, second best.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.