Luca Brecel placed the red that put the world title beyond the reach of Mark Selby, turned to face the crowd and spread his arms: aren’t they amused?
He had won this tournament with reckless abandon rarely seen in the Crucible, and certainly not in the finals. There have been plenty of attacking champions before, but few have done it with such nonchalance. Ten minutes before each session, Brecel made the short walk from his hotel to the stage door behind the theater, took off his jacket, and went out to play.
There it floated around the table, approaching each ball as if searching for groceries, seemingly immune to the tension this arena creates. It’s a venue that his opponent Selby knows all too well, having played in five previous finals and won four. Selby was dubbed a “boa constrictor” this week and his tactical play was bound to squeeze Brecel to death. Instead, it was Brecel’s relentless potting that set the pace, and Selby couldn’t keep up.
Brecel produced an extraordinary run, earning a deciding frame against Ricky Walden in the first round, beating multiple champions Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan, before producing a record-breaking comeback to beat Si Jiahui in the semi-finals. It was also a shocking victory: Brecel had never made it past the first round in the Crucible before in a decade of trying.
The obvious question is, why now? His raw talent has been known since he beat Stephen Hendry in an exhibition at age 14. He first came to the Crucible as the youngest player in the tournament’s history, at 17 years old. But until this year he had lost every match here, his brand of laissez-faire billiards apparently incompatible with the rigors of tough World Championship matches.
However, this time, something clicked. Brecel changed his approach: he did everything he could to reduce the pressure, forgoing practice to return to Belgium between matches where he played darts, computer games and got drunk with friends. He for the first time stopped trying to be the prototype of a world champion and embraced the true brecelism of him.
“Luca doesn’t mind losing,” says Belgian journalist Rudy Lanssens, reporting from the Crucible for the first time. “It’s unusual for champions, because they hate to lose. He says, I want to win a lot, but if I lose I don’t care. It’s like he was playing in the club with his teammates. I’ve been in this business for 32 years, I’ve covered football, cycling, darts and all kinds of sports and this guy is really one of a kind.
It is the first winner from continental Europe and Belgium have been hooked all week, although the game is not universally understood and some announcers have had to explain the value of the balls. Lanssens usually covers darts among other sports, but he was sent to Sheffield to follow up on the story.
“What a time to come, it’s exciting. With Luca there is always emotion because he sinks the most impossible balls, but he also misses the occasional easy ball, so you know something is going to happen. It’s on the front pages of Belgium, on the national news. Yesterday we had the final of the Belgian Cup in football, and it was overshadowed by Brecel. That means a lot.”
This was one of the most entertaining Crucible finals for many years. Both players got the better of each other: Brecel forced Selby to open up and attack; Selby had Brecel play a near perfect game to beat him. Brecel won the first three frames on Sunday playing pool, but Selby responded by winning the last three that night, including his historic 147th in one of the mini sessions of his life.
Brecel led 9-8 overnight, but the momentum seemed to have shifted in favor of Selby. However, Brecel returned on Monday playing his best snooker yet, rattling off the first four frames with 98 per cent pot success, scoring three centuries and doing it in the usual style. This style was a championship theme: the BBC ran a ‘blow of the tournament’ competition during the interval and four of the 10 candidates were from Brecel.
There’s a fluidity to his cues, a legato stroke that gently swings back and forth across the shot like a pendulum. Brecel plays with a long bridge (the distance between his left hand and the cue ball), which generates extra power, and means his dribbles sound different: there’s a satisfying clank when a ball hits the pocket.
The gospel of ‘Luca Snooker’ is pretty simple: I’ll try to pocket any ball that’s geometrically acceptable, whether it’s a sharp cut into a blind center pocket or a long red with the white pinned against the cushion. He sealed a draw Monday afternoon with a high-stakes double on the table, knowing the balls were perfectly set for Selby should he miss.
That style forced Selby to ask himself a question: can I put the cue ball to safety? In fact Sure, or do I take a pot to try and keep Brecel off the table? At times, Selby seemed to be caught in two minds and the little mistakes he made early Monday were mercilessly punished. Selby rallied on the night and briefly felt he could overturn a 16-10 deficit, but Brecel dug in and held on: it’s hard to scare an opponent who isn’t afraid of failure.
How did Brecel really feel when Selby won five frames in a row on Monday night, eating away at his lead and slowly closing in on an unlikely comeback? “At 16-15 I felt so bad, I didn’t think I was going to win more to be honest,” he admitted afterwards, sitting at a desk with the trophy under his chin. “It froze me, I had to dig really deep to find something.”
You may not be afraid of losing, but you certainly have self-doubt. And yet, the way he won this trophy showed a mental toughness that Brecel admits he hasn’t always had. It has taken winning a few qualifying tournaments to build confidence and resilience, and those traits helped him. “I could have been out against all the opponents. But somehow I managed to find something in the most important moments.”
He insists there won’t be a big party: all the late nights and pressure have taken a huge toll in the last 17 days, and he needs to rest. Also, he will return to Belgium as the new world number 2 and world champion, and that will be another challenge in itself. “It’s going to explode,” he says.