Snooker: Emotional year for long journey man

Shaun Murphy's planned exorcism of a "Crucible Curse", which decrees that no first-time winner will successfully defend his title at the Sheffield theatre, is accompanied by a sense of perspective about what he has already achieved.

"Win or lose this year, we'll be having a big celebration, because it will mark the end of a year that's been absolutely fantastic," says the Rotherham-born player. "There's only been 21 world champions in the history of the game, I did it by the age of 22, and if I never win another tournament in my life, I will die a happy man. I could not have imagined it in my wildest dreams. This year has been one hell of a ride."

It has also been one of starkly contrasting emotions since the 150-1 qualifier defeated Matthew Stevens 18-16 in last year's final to claim snooker's most coveted prize, together with a cheque for £250,000. He and his fiancée, Clare - whom he famously met through a Christian internet chatroom - were married in July. Then his father, Tony, a business consultant, suffered a heart attack.

"It's not been easy for anyone, particularly with me being away so much," says Murphy, who began his Crucible defence yesterday against James Wattana. "When I was stood over my dad's hospital bed, and he had drips coming out of him and monitors attached to his heart, being world champion counted for nothing."

He adds: "In the past year, our lives have changed beyond belief. We have renovated a house, a terraced place at Rawmarsh, in Rotherham. We bought it as an investment after the World Championship, and are renting it out. It was Clare's idea. In fairness, Clare's the brains behind the operation. She's a real rock. She looks after every-thing. I just pot a few balls. I've got the easy part."

Murphy has not just gained a wife, but a PA. They travel virtually everywhere together. Last month, she accompanied him to the China Open in Beijing. They took the opportunity to visit the Great Wall. On the baize, he appeared to have hit it, being eliminated in the opening round.

"Out there I was zonked, mainly because of the time difference and jet lag," Murphy says. "Had I been fitter, I think I might have coped with that better. The Crucible lasts for 17 days, that's 17 gruelling days, and last year I wasn't the lightest player by any stretch, but I had been to the gym and was quite fit. This year, I am just coming to about the end of what I can handle. Hopefully I have got enough in the tank for another couple of weeks."

He adds: "This has been my first full year, when I have played in every event. To be quite honest, I am absolutely knackered. I have known for some time that it's something I need to address. The days are coming when I will need to lose some weight, and get fit. I have a massive sweet tooth; cutting down on chocolate and sweets is what I really ought to do. That's my vice really. It's a bit of a standing joke: when I lose, what raises my spirits is a curry and a Mars bar."

And, of course, a prayer. Murphy does not believe that his faith makes him unusual. "We're just ordinary people who go to church, believe in God and we pray. I always pray before and after a match - win or lose," he says.

"I don't believe that it was by chance that a 22-year-old should come through two qualifiers, come through the tournament and walk away with the title. That was partly through the grace of God."

His image does, though, contrast markedly with the stereotypical hellraisers among those who have dominated the sport over the years. "A little bit," he agrees. "Like I won a quarter of a million pounds, and went out and bought a Mercedes E-Class when most lads would have gone out and bought a Ferrari, or whatever."

So, what does an E-Class Mercedes say about him? "That says I am just a solid, normal person; I am not massively flamboyant. I am not dancing from the lightshades; I am not doing any of that stuff. I am just a nice person, trying to do the best I can for me and my wife."

Which is not to say that Murphy has anything but the greatest respect for the mavericks of the game. "You know, I met Alex Higgins [the 1982 world champion] at the Northern Ireland Trophy back in August," he recalls.

"I made a point of going up to him. I know all the stories about him, true or false, but if it wasn't for him it's unlikely that I would have a job. I owe him a thank you for that.

"I am not old enough to have watched him on the telly, but I know that millions of people did. Some of those millions are still watching the game today. Had it not been for Alex's style and flamboyance, I would not have a game to go and play in."

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