Snooker: Fate starts to smile on the Leicester Jester

After overcoming family heartache, Selby is now ready to master O'Sullivan

It always takes something special to dislodge Ronnie O'Sullivan from centre stage at the Masters and,12 months ago, Mark Selby emphatically provided it.

The Rocket has won the prestigious invitation tournament at Wembley on four occasions, featuring in nine finals, including six of the last seven. It might not be Essex, but in an increasingly global sport venturing to China and mainland Europe, north-west London is about as close to a home game as O'Sullivan gets.

Just as it was for "People's Champion" Jimmy White, the backing for O'Sullivan from the large crowd is fiercely partisan to the point of hostility, and can unsettle the most experienced campaigners at the annual top-16-only get-together.

But last year, Leicester's Selby justified his reputation as a supreme match-player by refusing to contemplate defeat in the final, rising Lazarus-like from 9-6 down against O'Sullivan to win 10-9 and lift the Masters trophy for a second time.

It was a phenomenal recovery and few would bet against the pair meeting again in next Sunday's showpiece having been kept apart in the draw. Selby said: "Last year's final has to be the highlight of my career, and my greatest moment in snooker. To beat Ronnie anywhere is always a huge scalp but to beat him from three down with four to play in a major final on his home patch was special.

"The particular thing I remember was coming out first for the evening session of the final, and going to my seat. Then I heard the reception for Ronnie. It was unbelievable, like nothing I had heard, and it just made me not want to lose. I used it to inspire me."

The world No 6's moniker of the "Leicester Jester" stems from his often light-hearted demeanour around the table but life has not always smiled kindly on the 27-year-old, affording him perspective by the bucket-load when it comes to potting a few balls.

The 2007 Crucible runner-up's mother Shirley walked out when he was just eight years old, and he lost father David to cancer at 16. His brother and a close network of friends looked out for him during times that were tough, not least financially.

Selby's talent saw him turn pro at 16, but only after recruiting former player Mukesh Parmar as his manager in late 2005 did his career fortunes drastically improve. Parmar demanded total commitment, and painted a gloomy picture of the alternatives for a young lad with no other qualifications. The pair hatched a three-year plan and within 18 months Selby was in the World Championship final, losing to John Higgins.

"Coming through tough times and overcoming adversity stands you in good stead for whatever you do in life," said Selby. "In snooker, if you get into the top 16 the hard way, maybe after a few failed attempts, you may be in better shape than someone who breezes through to get there. I got into the top 32, then fell out again, so around 2005-06, that was the most difficult period of my life. But it has made it sweeter having some success.

"I have also had problems off the table in the past, and managing them as well as maintaining a high level of play is hard work. With what I have gone through, with my Dad passing away at such a young age, and other things, it has made me a stronger person. I will never get above myself and think I have made it, I know how tough the game is and I appreciate what I have got and achieved.

"I have had a lot of people help me along the way, and I will never forget that. Things are very good right now, and I've a lot to look forward to. I am engaged to my partner Vikki, and we are getting married in May in Cancun."

If Selby lacks the natural talent and fluency of O'Sullivan, his temperament would feature in every composite sportsman's make-up and Mark King will do well to live with him this afternoon in their first-round clash.

And as he goes chasing another £150,000 winner's cheque, Selby admits the wider landscape has changed unrecognisably since Barry Hearn took control of the sport.

"There was a period 18 months ago, with hardly any sponsors and six tournaments a year, I was worried if there was a living to be made. But he has grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, we have new tournaments like the one-frame shoot-out later this month in Blackpool, and we are all playing virtually every week.

"Maybe that's why the Masters feels like it has come round so quickly," he adds, "because we are finally busy, and I can't wait to get out there and defend my title."

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