MARK Selby breathed a huge sigh of relief on Saturday night - after edging a Betfred World Championship classic against Kurt Maflin.
Last year’s champion was taken all the way at the Crucible by the Norwegian qualifier and debutant before claiming an epic 10-9 victory.
World No1 Selby, 31, knows all about the famous Crucible curse, which has seen no first-time winner return to Sheffield defend their crown.
There seemed little danger when he led 8-4 – but London-born Maflin, ranked No38 in the world, reeled off five frames on the spin to lead for the first time.
And Selby, a renowned master of brinkmanship, had to dig very deep to win the last two frames and fall over the winning line to reach the last 16.
Maflin is on his third crack at the tour, gave up the game for two years and saw his career hit by a car crash that meant he required a plate and screws in his shoulder.
The 150-1 title shot shone on the biggest stage on Saturday – but fell agonisingly short of a shock win.
Selby said: “At 9-8 down I was preparing my speech, saying the curse had struck again. Kurt played fantastically well on his debut, but I had a feeling he would – he is a laid-back character.
“But this is the Crucible and right at the end I thought he was finally feeling it and if I could regroup then I could still do it. Even at 8-8 I thought I was going to lose.
“The sport’s best, Hendry, Davis, O’Sullivan, Higgins and Williams have not been able to come back as first time winners and defend this so it shows how hard it is – but hopefully I can.”
Maflin said: “All you want is a chance in the decider. I had one and didn’t take it so Mark deserved to win and showed why he is the world champion.
“I am happy with the way I played overall and my career seems to be going the right way, but I just wish it had gone the other way at the end.”
The pair clashed just two weeks ago in the China Open semi-finals – and though Selby won 6-3 on his way to the title, Maflin scored two centuries that day and looked the part.
But it was a frustrating morning for Maflin, who was handed more chances than he could have dreamed of against last year’s winner but wasted plenty.
From 2-2 Selby took charge and established a 6-3 lead after the first session, helped by breaks of 84, 108, 53, 69 and 56.
But after Selby made a second century in the evening session, a break of 124 to go 8-4 up, Maflin started to pile on the pressure.
And turning the match on its head the Norwegian put together a stunning run of five frames in a row to lead for the first time at 9-8.
But with both players clearly feeling the strain Selby held his nerve at the death.
Photograph by Monique Limbos