Shaun Murphy heads to the Masters this week confident in his game, but dealing with an injury that is making life difficult for him now and could alter the rest of his snooker career.
The Magician has been suffering with a neck and shoulder injury for the best part of a decade, one that is common among snooker players, but goes from anything from minor irritation to career-threatening pain.
Murphy is not worried about hanging up his cue yet, but he is having to cut down his hours on the practice table and admits that he will have to wait and see how that impacts his game.
‘It flared up many years ago, not many snooker players wouldn’t have a neck or back issue,’ Murphy told Metro.co.uk. ‘A physio explained to me that snooker is one of the worst standing positions to take for your body. Bending is fine but then asking your neck to extend to see down the line of the shot. It’s that movement, then everyone’s got a little twist as well which makes it worse.
‘It first came into my life in around 2013, I had a terrible experience with it in the 2015 World final, woke up in the morning of the final and couldn’t look to my left. The whole morning ahead of the final was with [coach] Chris Henry trying to do a makeshift physio job on me, trying to release some of the muscles in my back so I was at least able to walk out there and play.
‘From then on it’s been managing it, then not keeping on top of it as much as I should. This time it’s flared up and not gone away so I’m now having to tailor my career around it.
‘The days of me doing five-seven hours practice a day and competing in every tournament are probably over. I probably now have to settle to do a couple of hours a day or even every other day to get to a tournament pain-free. Which is great for golf! Time will tell how much effect that will have on my snooker.’
After his superb run to the final of the World Championship last year, and fewer issues travelling back and forth from his home in Ireland, the 2021/22 season looked set to be a bright one for Murphy.
However, he’s managed just one quarter-final in a disappointing campaign so far. The 39-year-old is actually happy with his form, but the injury, and the incredible standard on tour have been his downfall.
‘It’s a funny one, because my form’s actually not been bad, I’ve been very happy with how I’ve played in the majority of matches,’ he said. ‘The injury in my neck and shoulder doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
‘It started to get onto me at the English, every shot I played at Champion of Champions was in pain. Pretty much every shot I played at the UK Championships was in pain.
‘It’s not been the season I’ve been hoping for so far, but I can look myself in the mirror and know that it’s not that I’ve been playing badly, a few things have gone against me and some players have played out of their boots against me.
‘Li Hang in the Scottish [Open] was ridiculous, when you see a player like that you wonder why he hasn’t got a cabinet full of trophies in his house. I was disappointed to be on the wrong end of one of his inspired performances, but that’s the game, you have to learn to take those downs with the ups.’
Murphy is hoping to turn his season around on one of the sport’s grandest stages and one he has shone on before, winning the Masters at Alexandra Palace in 2015.
‘The cliché of every match could be a final, top 16, one table, most sessions are packed,’ he said of the Masters. ‘I love playing at Ally Pally, the event has really found a home there, the crowd play their part and having won it there, it’s always nice returning to a venue you’ve had success at.
‘I’m really looking forward to it, my game’s in good shape when I’m able to play and I hope I’m able to walk out there in as little pain as possible and put on a good show.’
Murphy’s Masters history goes all the way back to 2001 when he won the old Benson and Hedges Championship for players outside the top 16 to make it to the Wembley Conference Centre.
It was a memorable debut for the teenager, who was thrown in at the deep end in London.
‘I was 18, playing Marco Fu in the preliminary round. I think he made a frame-winning break from my first break-off and I remember thinking, “Oo this is hard work,” but then I won 6-1! I missed a green in the last frame for three centuries on the bounce, I really took to it.
‘Then the next day I walked into Stephen Hendry, I was 4-1 up and had a complete out of body experience, the ref was racking the balls up, I looked over at Hendry in his chair with his head in his hands and the crowd didn’t really know what to make of it.
‘I looked at the scoreboard, Shaun “Who the hell is he?” Murphy 4-1 up on Stephen “AKA God” Hendry and I think I scored something like 17 points after that, my head just fell off. It was a steep learning curve, but it wet the whistle and I was desperate to get back there.’
The Magician returned to the Masters in 2006 and has not missed the event since, reaching the pinnacle in 2015 when he dismantled Neil Robertson 10-2 in the final, which at least one observer felt was Murphy at his zenith.
‘There’s a couple of people in my life who have been with me from the start,’ Shaun explained. ‘A dear family friend, John Wilson, has been with me since 8 years old and been to almost every match, and he says that’s the best he ever saw me play, that week and the final. I always took that compliment on board from someone that has watched me since picking up a cue.
‘I was just in such a good spot. Chris Henry and I were right in the thick of our work together on the psychological side of the game, some of the tweaks to the technique were all coming together, I made three maximums in one year, it was just a mad period of time in my career.
‘So full of confidence, I don’t remember ever considering I would lose in the final, you just get a lead and all you can see is getting a bigger lead. I was just working on my game, my process and maybe I should go back to that!
‘I’ve not been tinkering much at the minute, I feel like my game’s in good shape, it’s just the pain and if I can shed that then I’ll be dangerous again.’
Murphy takes on Barry Hawkins in round one of the Masters on Monday evening.
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