Even from within this golden era of snooker champions, Mark Selby has somehow always stood apart.
The poker face. The iron will. And the overwhelming sense that, in a world where sporting formats usually only get shorter, Selby would really rather relish a return to the days when World Championship finals were played over two weeks rather than two days.
Ronnie O’Sullivan called him “the torturer”. John Parrott says that you have to “scrape him off the table to win” but it is instructive that Selby himself identifies “a mask”. It was a mask that conveyed so little emotion that the ‘Jester from Leicester’ moniker was once described in these pages as the “most bitterly ironic” in sport.
And then in January, having lost in the quarter-finals of the Masters at Alexandra Palace, Selby stopped at a motorway services and pressed send on a tweet that changed his life.
“Just want to apologise to all my friends and family for letting them down,” he wrote. “Mentally not in a good place ... had a relapse and trying to bottle it up and put a brave face on is not the way. I promise I will get help and be a better person.”
Selby did not know what to expect but, within 24 hours, he already felt very different and so reached for the keyboard again.
“The biggest match I have overcome was yesterday speaking out and finally admitting I need help,” he wrote. “Bottling it up for years. Finally feel a huge weight lifted. Feel I don’t have to hide behind the mask anymore.”
Selby now thinks that he would “probably have done something silly” had he not reached out. He has since sought professional help and, above all, kept talking to reveal the depths of the depression that had left him contemplating suicide.
“I never really got over my Dad, even to this day,” he says. “I think that is where it stems from and then, over the years, because I have not spoken about it, it has snowballed and got worse.”
So who was David Selby?
“He was my idol – someone I looked up, and still look up to – I miss him like it was yesterday,” says Selby, whose mother left the family home when he was eight.
David was a bricklayer on a building site. He would play Sunday league football and snooker with his friends at the Newfoundpool Working Men’s Club. They lived on a council estate in New Parks and, having watched his Dad, Selby became fascinated by the snooker table’s endless possibilities. Word spread locally of his talent to the two godfathers of Leicester snooker – brothers Malcolm and Willie Thorne – who invited Selby to practice at their club.
“Willie’s brother funded a lot of tournaments for me,” he says. “All I ever did with my Dad was go to snooker tournaments around the country. I won the English Under-15s at Liverpool when I was 14, beating a lad called Kurt Maflin 4-3. I came off the table, looked at my Dad and he was balling his eyes out like I had won the World Championship.”
David was diagnosed with lung cancer in September 1999 and admitted to the Loros Hospice the following month.
“At the time, I didn’t realise what it was – I thought it was an upgraded hospital,” says Selby. “I saw him the day before I was going to play a tournament in Malvern. I wasn't going to play. He said, ‘I want you to play. Go and try your hardest. Never give in’. I lost to David Gray 5-4 and, when I came off, one of my friends told me that my father had passed away during that game.”
Selby had only just turned 16. He wanted to “curl up in a ball” and could not bear to remain in the house they had shared with his brother. He stopped practicing and ended up in hospital to have his stomach pumped following an overdose. He moved in with a friend, Alan Perkins, and those around him stressed that his father would have wanted him to play snooker and be happy.
‘Every time I play snooker, he is with me in spirit’
Selby knew that this was the case and so he has spent the last 23 years trying to balance two intensely powerful emotions. His snooker career, where he now stands among just five giants in O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis and John Higgins in triumphing at least four times at the Crucible, is fuelled by this burning desire to remain true to his father’s last words. And yet he must also live with the tragic realisation that his Dad did not live to see him even turn professional.
“That eats away at me,” says Selby. “There are plenty of times I’ve thought about stopping completely but every time I play, in the back of my mind, I try to use it as a positive.
“It was all he installed in me – try your best, treat the game with respect, treat your opponent with respect and never give in until that last ball is potted.
“I think that’s where I have got my grit and determination from. Every time I play snooker, he is with me in spirit. I feel like he is looking down on me. If I’m in my chair, feeling like I might give in, not scrap for the match, I’d feel as though I’m letting him down. It’s something I've still got hold of with him that I’ve not wanted to let go of. I’ve tried to be the professional I can to respect his wishes.”
It all provides fresh context to the emotional scenes in 2014 when he won his first World Championship with a remarkable final day comeback against O’Sullivan. As Selby collected the trophy, the famous bald-headed figure of Thorne, whose brother had himself died of cancer three years earlier, was quietly weeping in the corner. “It was surreal because he knew what I had gone through,” says Selby. “Everything comes flooding back because you think, ‘I've done all that for people who are no longer here’.”
Selby’s rock now is his wife, Vikki, who he met in 2006 and he credits with “turning my life around”. Vikki encouraged him to be publicly honest about his feelings.
“My wife thinks I have been suffering for a lot longer than just when I spoke out. She’s been with me for 16 years and the majority of that time she feels like I've had periods where I've been really low or distant. You look back and think, ‘yeah, you're probably right.’ At the time I didn't really know. I’d just assumed you are having a crap day and that everybody has good days and bad days.
“When I was going through lulls, I was waking up and not wanting to do anything. Literally. Even things with my daughter. I would just shut myself away from everyone. It’s like if you've got a table and you keep putting stuff on – sooner or later it is going to collapse. I didn't speak to anyone, didn't go to the doctors, hid it from Vik for quite a few years.”
Selby had previously put the suicidal thoughts down to his father’s death but says that “in the last few years I’ve sort of had periods where I’ve felt in that position again”. He adds: “It just got to the point where it broke me. I felt like I couldn't battle and deal with it myself any more.”
Selby has been seeing a psychiatrist for the past six months. He is taking medication and, depending on how he responds over the coming weeks, they may look to gradually lower the dose.
He returns to the table on Saturday in the newly launched world mixed doubles where the best four men’s players in the world will be partnered by the best four women. Selby will join forces with the Yorkshire professional Rebecca Kenna, who he invited earlier this month to Leicester for several days practice together. “I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says. “I’ve said to Rebecca, when she comes away from it, you want to feel like you've enjoyed it. If you see a shot that you fancy potting, or it’s a shot you normally go for, then go for it.”
The British Open then begins on Monday where, for all the influx of talent from China, O’Sullivan, Higgins and Mark Williams still stand among the players to beat after again all reaching the World Championship semi-finals in May. They are now closer to 50 than 40, with Selby marvelling at their “incredible hunger” to still compete at such a high level more than 30 years after turning professional.
‘Mentally I am in a bit better position than in January’
He says that he will approach the season with renewed enthusiasm but is mindful that mental health challenges can never be definitely won, only well managed on a day-to-day basis.
“I feel like the more I speak out the better,” he says. “You are releasing emotions. The psychiatrist wants me to write stuff down that I want to complete each day. I’m also trying to do a bit of running. It releases endorphins. I’m trying to keep myself active rather than lock myself away.
“I feel like mentally I am in a bit better position than in January. I've realised that the main thing is my health and to make sure I’m still OK.”
Selby arrived back from this year’s World Championship to a major surprise. A letter with the words ‘Her Majesty’s Service’ on the envelope was waiting from Queen Elizabeth II with the news that he had been awarded the MBE.
The late Queen was apparently a big fan of snooker and a possible meeting with King Charles III now awaits. “To be given that honour was quite emotional,” says Selby. “It shows just how far I’ve come. Incredible. Very touching. My Dad would have loved it. I’d like to think I’ve done him proud.”