If Alex Higgins was not the greatest snooker player of his era, then he was certainly the most exciting; and if his 82 tournament centuries were all nervily brilliant compilations, his best ever break was not a century, but a 69, wrought with jittery luminosity in the 30th frame of his best-of-31-frames World Championship semi-final against Jimmy White, at the Crucible, Sheffield, in 1982. If you doubt me, find it on YouTube, and feast your eyes on what happens when a man’s sporting genius conquers his own fragility, on green baize. Oh and Higgins went on to win the match, beat Ray Reardon in the final, and take the title.
Nothing that happened in yesterday’s China Championship final between Shaun Murphy and Mark Williams can or ever could compare to the best of the Hurricane in his fidgety pomp, but the key break was also an admirably uneasy 69, by Murphy, compiled under enormous pressure, in the 19th and deciding frame.
Murphy had started the match well, sharing the first six frames with Williams, the world No3, the winner of 22 ranking tournaments, a three-time World Champion, most recently in 2018, and at 44 playing as well as ever. By contrast, Murphy had not won a ranking tournament for more than two years, but he had started the 2019/2020 season promisingly, runner-up to Judd Trump in the International Championship in Daqing, China, last month, and runner-up to Ronnie O’Sullivan in the Shanghai Masters two weeks ago. Murphy is a fine player but, although TV commentators habitually and rightly praise his “Rolls-Royce cue action”, he is not in Williams’ league when it comes to safety play, shot selection or high-pressure matchplay.
At 5-5, though, he found his mojo and cut loose, winning four frames on the trot. At 9-5 up he must have thought he was safe: the first to 10 would win. Even when Williams rallied, taking the next two frames, Murphy appeared confident: 9-7 up, playing well, he was still very much the favourite. But the 17th frame was a long and tense one, and Williams won it: he was now only one behind.
Suddenly, Murphy looked unhappy, tetchy, perplexed, out of sorts, and worse was to come. Conjuring an ingenious shot-to-nothing to get off the mark in frame 18 – a doubled red into the right middle from near the top cushion, including an element of safety but leaving himself squarely on the black – Williams dished up a 132 total clearance: 9-all.
But then came the deciding frame – and Murphy’s winning 69 break. “I was getting very uncomfortable in my chair,” he said afterwards, describing Williams’ comeback, “in fact I felt sick, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see straight, it was horrible. So, bearing in mind what had been going on before I made that 69, I’d say it was one of the best breaks of my life.” That it was.