Richard Mann reflects on Mark Selby's stunning victory at the English Open in Crawley ahead of a significant period in the snooker season.
Selby sublime in Sunday stroll
Following a winless run that stretched back to the China Championship in September 2018, Mark Selby banished the memories of a deeply frustrating run of form in the subsequent 13 months with victory at the English Open on Sunday.
Having stuttered, struggled and then dragged himself over the winning line in battling victories over Mei Xi Wen and Mark Allen in the quarter- and semi-finals, Selby was simply sensational in his 9-1 dismantling of David Gilbert in Sunday's final, recording breaks of 88, 68, 79, 85, 130 97, and 101 in a performance of the very highest order.
It was Selby of old, similar to the level of form he regularly produced when winning the World Championship three times in a golden run between 2014 and 2017, and during that wider period when he held the world number one spot almost exclusively form late 2011 to early 2019.
Selby's subsequent loss of form saw him suffer consecutive early exits at his beloved Crucible in 2018 and 2019 but he has had his moments since, most notably a couple of semi-final finishes this season following a run to the same stage of the Northern Ireland Open last term, where he lost he lost 6-5 to Ronnie O'Sullivan in a memorable match.
That defeat in Belfast was to prove a feature of Selby's downturn in fortunes. His scoring prowess still remained at a perfectly serviceable level and only a few weeks later he rattled off breaks of 133, 125, 115, 96, 95 when slamming Stephen Maguire in the last 16 of The Masters. The issue was that when Selby wasn't able to dominate in the scoring department, his ability win matches when not firing on all cylinders - for so long a hallmark of his game - went missing and he found himself losing from previously unassailable winning positions.
The most obvious example came at the Players Championship in March where Selby led Neil Robertson 6-2 after a flawless opening session before going onto to lose 9-8.
The Selby of old would never have surrendered such a healthy lead and as he said himself last week, his sudden inability to win closely-contested, tactical frames - previously his bread and butter - was hindering him far more than any apparent loss to his potting and break-building abilities.
Over the past few weeks, Selby has slowly but surely began to put that right with a hard-fought defeat of Barry Hawkins in the China Championship a step in the right direction before he twice came from behind in the latter stages in Crawley.
His victory over Allen was a triumph of endeavour, resilience and nerve. It was a match he had no right to win but one in which he somehow managed to prevail. This was Selby of old.
Less than 24 hours later, Selby didn't need to fall back on those attributes as he overpowered a shell-shocked Gilbert with a dazzling display that will have made his peers sit up and take notice.
Selby is back all right, and with all facets of his game in full working order again, and his hunger as strong as ever, he should be contesting at the business end of major tournaments with regularity for the foreseeable future.
Big guns coming to the boil
Rewind 12 months and Ronnie O'Sullivan was just about to begin a period of sustained dominance, his run to the semi-finals of the English Open followed by victories at the Champions of Champions and UK Championship before Christmas and then at the Players Championship and Tour Championship in the new year.
O'Sullivan also made the finals of the Northern Ireland Open and The Masters in that period as he briefly returned to the top of the world rankings.
Having also claimed first prize at the Shanghai Masters at the beginning of last season - a feat he repeated on his seasonal debut this term - and played well in patches in Crawley last week, he looks to be coming to the boil nicely ahead of bigger targets ahead.
The difference this year, however, is that many of his main rivals are in much better form a year on with Judd Trump having enjoyed the best 12 months of his life, culminating with him being crowned world champion for the first time.
Having endured a horrible campaign last term, Shaun Murphy has been transformed over the last few months and three major finals and one trophy is just reward for the terrific snooker he has produced while Mark Allen and David Gilbert continue to prove pillars of consistency who will be challenging for major honours in the coming weeks and months.
Selby's spectacular return to form puts him firmly back in the mix when looking ahead to future events while the likes of Neil Robertson and John Higgins have both shown enough in the early tournaments to suggest they will make their mark.
With so many leading pretenders evidently in good shape at present, it is fair to assume that we could be in for one of the most competitive periods in snooker for some time with the possibility of any one player dominating appearing slim.
Of course, the likes of O'Sullivan and Trump are clearly capable of going on a golden run but they would face stiff competition with the top tier of the sport, at least, currently in really good health.
It might make predicting outright winners that little bit tougher but it should make for competitive snooker and some fascinating viewing.
Young buds ready to flower
The same big names might still be dominating at the business end of tournaments but lower down the rankings, there are some promising young players who are proving themselves capable of packing a punch.
The most obvious example from Crawley is 17-year-old Si Jiahui, who announced his arrival on the big stage by beating defending champion Stuart Bingham 4-1 before whitewashing Zhou Yuelong 4-0 in the next round.
His dream run came to an end at the last-32 stage but he is clearly a player of considerable potential, with the experience gained last week sure to have done him the world of good.
Compatriot Zhao Xintong has been around a little longer but he finally looks to be maturing and having played really well to reach the last 16 of the China Championship, he only found David Gilbert too strong at the same stage in Crawley.
Despite making breaks of 98, 93, 64, he was just undone by Gilbert's superior experience but he appears to improving all the time and his 4-0 whitewash of Robertson in the previous round only underlined his capabilities.
Yuan Sijun is a name that regular readers of Sporting Life will have heard plenty of and his performance when losing to Ronnie O'Sullivan on Wednesday confirms he isn't too far away from a deep run in a major tournament, while I must give special mention to Kurt Maflin despite the fact he's now 36 and hardly qualifies as a young buck on the up.
Having chanced the Norwegian at 250/1 for English Open glory, I was heartened to see him play so well in beating Noppon Saengkham and Jimmy Robertson.
This heavy scorer made centuries in each of those matches and then added another when Gilbert ended his run in their last-32 match, Maflin never quite able to recover from falling 2-0 behind before eventually going down 4-2.
Whether he can win a ranking title remains to be seen, but he is a dangerous operator who is capable of claiming a big scalp or two on his day, particularly in the best-of-seven frames format, and it might pay to keep him on side in some way at the upcoming Northern Ireland Open and Scottish Open.
With recent events meaning Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's star is on the wane, Maflin might well prove to be the best thing to come out of Norway since Harry Hole.