AS 2015 DRAWS to a close, several of the game’s stars have a claim to be regarded as player of the year.
John Higgins, apparently in a decline just a year ago, won three ranking titles as he turned 40. Neil Robertson ended the year on a high with back-to-back major titles. Shaun Murphy was successful at the Masters and reached two other big finals. Mark Selby picked up two ranking titles.
All very commendable, too, but objectively the player of the year is Stuart Bingham because he is the world champion. Any of the other players mentioned here would swap their trophies for his.
In this era of full time snooker, the World Championship retains its mystique and its power. It is the ultimate test of a player: 17 days, long matches, time for doubt to set in during the off times. The scrutiny is unforgiving. Not everyone can handle it but for the select band of champions the prize is snooker immortality.
Bingham arrived in Sheffield as something of an outsider but not a complete long-shot. He had won ranking tournaments and various other trophies after emerging as a top player following many years saddled with the journeyman tag.
He wasn’t among the first five or six names proffered as a likely winner and rather laboured to a first round win over Robbie Williams before a more comfortable victory over Graeme Dott sent him into the quarter-finals.
For many, this was as far as he was going to go. He had drawn Ronnie O’Sullivan, seeking a sixth world title and carrying a formidable record over his fellow Essex man.
But O’Sullivan’s aura had suffered a dent or two since he had won the Champion of Champions and UK Championship titles back-to-back just before Christmas 2014. Robertson swept him aside at the Masters. Murphy beat him in Berlin. Judd Trump defeated him in the World Grand Prix final.
In other words, top players were stepping up to the plate against him in ways they had struggled to do for some time. Selby had shown them at the Crucible in 2014 that the best player of the millennium was beatable on the greatest stages.
Bingham stuck with him, but coming out 8-8 for the final session, with everything on the line, he was still second favourite. What we saw in that session was someone match-fit through having played in just about every tournament going finding confidence in his game against someone rustier, regardless of his stellar record.
Bingham won 13-9, and was in tears afterwards. Beating O’Sullivan in Sheffield is reason enough to celebrate but as a great fan of the sport, the prospect of playing in the one-table set-up was a dream about to be realised.
Bingham did something smart the next day. He was due on against Trump at night but came to the arena for the start of the afternoon session between Murphy and Barry Hawkins. This allowed him to soak up the atmosphere, to not be over-awed by it.
By now he was used to being second favourite. He didn’t care. He stuck with Trump early on, refusing to be brushed aside by the precocious young talent.
From 9-9 Bingham put together four really impressive frames, displaying the sort of tough matchplay required on the most demanding stage of them all. Two centuries at night helped him lead 16-14. Trump’s response was classy as back-to-back tons set up the decider.
In the last, Trump was unlucky with a kick but Bingham retained his composure admirably. To quote Terry Griffiths, a surprise finalist in 1979, he was in the final now, you know.
Even so, there was a sense on the first day of the final that Bingham had had a good tournament but that Murphy, the former winner and Masters champion, would prevail. Bingham, though, sensed that this was his moment, one that may never come again. At night, he produced one of his most significant spells of the tournament, coming from 8-4 down to trail only 9-8 overnight.
He began the final day – the most important of his career, win or lose – with a four frame burst to lead 12-9. He had won eight of the last nine frames played.
Murphy pulled it back to 15-15 before the key frame of the whole championship, a 64 minute war of attrition which ended when Murphy missed the yellow. This seemed to give Bingham a second wind and two half centuries carried him to the winning line.
What a story. Nearly 20 years as a professional, much of it below the radar, away from the glamour of the television spotlight, and now this. On top of the world.
You won’t see much time devoted to Bingham’s achievement at the increasingly bizarre BBC Sports Personality of the Year this weekend but few British sportspeople have toiled for so long, with so many reasons to lose heart, yet remained so positive, so determined and so committed to what they do.
Bingham’s victory was not just the realisation of a personal dream, it was the story of a man who had lost many matches but never the love for what he does. It was the application of a positive attitude and the rewards this mindset can bring.
Sometimes dreams do come true, and 2015 will be remembered as the year Stuart Bingham woke up as world champion.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.