How Shaun Murphy recovered from ‘some very dark moments’
The 2005 world champion discusses the despair of the worst 18 months of his career, contemplating retirement, and how he managed to turn it around.
It’s every professional sportsperson’s worst nightmare.
A run of form so bad that it develops from a streak into a state of mind. Not only being unable to see a way out, but being unable to remember what it was like to ever play well.
That was what Shaun Murphy suffered during the 2018/19 season.
In the 16 events that he entered, Murphy was knocked out in the first round six times, second round five times and third round three times, managing one semi-final and one final.
That sequence is inexplicable for a player who has won all three Triple Crown events, and had reached four finals, winning one, the season before.
Knowing why it happened, however, is virtually impossible.
“Professional sport is not an exact science,” says Murphy. “It’s not as binary as A+B=C.
“I was searching under every rock and not really coming up with the answers. I watched a lot of my old victories back, looking for that creative spark.
"The most important thing is belief, but retaining that belief is very, very hard to do when you are going into every event with optimism and then losing early to people who you normally wouldn’t lose to.
“It was happening time after time.”
The 2005 world champion is renowned for his positive outlook, but constant defeats made that sunny disposition hard to maintain.
“There are only so many times that you can laugh it off,” he says.
“One of the hardest parts about sport is that your family and friends all want the debrief when you get home. When you’re around the dinner table on a Sunday and the snooker’s on the TV, and you’re not there, you’ve got to explain to everyone what’s happening.
“There was a bit of banter with the guys in the club. It’s all very good and well for a little while, you cope with it. But when it’s for a season or 18 months, it becomes quite wearing.”
So wearing, in fact, that there were times when Murphy struggled to keep his emotions under control.
“There were some very dark moments,” he says.
“I talk about keeping my optimism high, but I only just managed to keep it. I was down to the burning embers.
“It was a close call. I said some very silly things about going off and doing something else with my life and looking for different careers. I was going to throw myself into my work with the WPBSA and the players’ commission and write off my playing career, because I was just finding it so hard to take.
“Fortunately, I managed to keep those thoughts and feelings to a 24-hour period. I’d vent my anger and frustration and then get back on the practice table the next day.”
Murphy, by his own admission, is a tinkerer. He relishes analysing his own game and is always considering technical tweaks.
For some players, trying new things in an attempt to rediscover their form could be draining. For Murphy, however, it sparked his recovery.
“There have been a whole host of changes that my coach Chris Henry and I have wanted to make for a while,” he says, “but we’ve never really found the right time because there’s always the risk of taking a step back before you take two forward.
“You will undeniably struggle for a period of time while you're making those changes. But I said to Chris that things couldn’t get any worse, so let’s use this opportunity to make the changes that we always wanted to make.
“My form was so low. I changed things in the belief that at some stage in the future I would start feeling the benefit."
He did, starting at this year’s World Championship in Sheffield in April, where he inflicted the first Crucible whitewash for 27 years, beating Luo Honghao 10-0, before playing well in defeat to Neil Robertson in the last 16.
“Neil was close to unplayable in that best-of-25 match,” says Murphy, “but I actually played very well. I finished the season feeling as if I had turned a bit of a corner.”
“When you lose that hope, that drive, then you’re in real trouble. I’m pleased to say that never happened to me.
“I came into this season full of hope and optimism and I think that’s the key.”
Murphy has played just seven events heading into the 2019 Betway UK Championship, but his 2019/20 campaign has already surpassed the entirety of 2018/19.
The 37-year-old has reached the last eight five times, been in the final of three, and won one: the China Championship, his first ranking title since the Gibraltar Open in March 2017.
“Relief is the word,” says Murphy. “I am enjoying the game again.
“I’m going to each event thinking that I need to take enough shirts to last the week. Last season I was only taking a couple and I would make small hotel bookings.
“It’s a complete change in belief. My happiness has returned, without being too dramatic.”
Murphy smiles as he recalls bringing the China Championship trophy back from Guangzhou.
“My father-in-law was there the next time that we were sitting around the table for Sunday dinner, and suddenly the conversation wasn’t about another loss and what went wrong.
“Now we’re talking about being a winner again.”
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