World Snooker Championship: Shaun Murphy 'better now'
A sportsperson's relationship with his or her game is not much different to an actual romance. To paraphrase Billy Bragg, if you take your precious game apart, to see how it works, the risk is you'll forget how to put it together again.
In 2005, Shaun Murphy won the World Snooker Championship aged only 22. He was the second-youngest player to win the Crucible title, after Stephen Hendry, only the third qualifier and a 150-1 shot before the tournament started.
Six-time champion Steve Davis said Murphy had the best cue action he had ever seen. The chubby kid from a small village in Northamptonshire went for pretty much everything and didn't miss much. Murphy, like most kids in the flush of youth, thought it would always be this way.
"After I won the World Championship," Murphy, the reigning Masters champion, tells BBC Sport, "I do remember thinking: 'It won't be another 10 years before I win this again.' Things didn't exactly pan out like that.
"I got battle scarred quickly. At some stage, when I was 23 or 24, what I was doing went wrong. I was going for too many shots and losing to players I shouldn't have been losing to. That was when I started trying to become a more tactical player.
"I took on too much advice from people who meant well, but I should have stuck to my guns. If I could get in a time machine and go back, I'd give myself a shake and say: 'Stick to what you're doing, play your natural game.'
"When I look at old footage and see some of the shots I played, I'm sat there shouting at the telly - 'what on earth are you doing?!' But it's what I've tried to rediscover. I'm a little bit cleverer and I can get in the trenches and fight it out. But I'm trying to go back to the 22-year-old me - if a shot's on, I'll go for it."
It sounds simple. But it wasn't, and never is in sport. Last year, Murphy considered quitting the game, having been driven to distraction by his inability to translate thousands of hours of practice into tournament success.
"There were a few dark years when I wasn't practising enough, was doing too many golf days and charity events," says the world number eight, who kicks off his Crucible campaign against qualifier Robin Hull next Wednesday.
"I still got to the final of the Masters, the UK Championship (both in 2012) and the Worlds (in 2009). But I wanted to be a winner. It was difficult being a loser, I didn't like it.
"Then when I started putting the hard work in, banging balls in all day long, day after day, I still wasn't getting anything for it. Losing 6-1 to Mark Selby in the semi-finals of the Masters last year was almost the final nail in the coffin.
"I could have easily walked away from snooker there and then. I've no idea what I would have done. Anything that didn't hurt that badly."
Murphy says the "click" that all players hope to hear happened at an obscure Championship League match in Essex last year. In 2014, Murphy won minor ranking events in Poland, Bulgaria and Germany and the World Open in China.
In January, Murphy got revenge over Selby in the Masters, pipping him 6-5 in the first round before trouncing Australia's Neil Robertson 10-2 in the final.
"You become like a mad scientist," says Murphy, "coming up with all these different ideas, looking for a secret, and when you find it you want to tell everybody. But I've decided it's probably best I keep the secret to myself."
While Murphy is happy to have rediscovered what set him apart on a snooker table, he is also glad to have parted company with the "gobby" know-it-all who made enemies among his fellow pros and left many fans of the game cold.
As a younger man, Murphy had an opinion on pretty much everything. You only had to ask. He railed against opponents taking toilet breaks and sneered when they complained about playing conditions and prize money. And even before his Crucible triumph, Murphy had earned a reputation as something of a sneak.
In a 2004 Grand Prix encounter against Stephen Maguire, the Scot was docked the opening frame after leaving the arena to retrieve his chalk. Maguire said it was Murphy who asked the referee for the punishment to be applied. Although Murphy denied this at the time, Maguire has never forgotten it.
Five-time Crucible champion Ronnie O'Sullivan also came in for some tongue-lashings, which meant it was easy to paint Murphy as a priggish old woman, in stark contrast to the freewheeling O'Sullivan, the maverick non-conformist.
"I said a few things I wish I could take back," says Murphy. "I criticised a few players and I wish I'd kept my own counsel a bit more and focused on what I was doing. I thought I knew everything. It turned out I was wrong.
"No-one gave me a handbook after I won the world title. I had to make it up as I went along. But I've changed beyond recognition. I'm a more rounded individual, a nicer, better person away from the table and a better player on it."
Murphy has also rediscovered love beyond the baize, which has to be good for the perspective. Last Christmas, he got engaged to Elaine, whom he met on a dating website. The fact he was a former snooker world champion did not feature on his profile.
"We went for a bite to eat on the third or fourth date and a group of lads came over for a picture and an autograph," says Murphy. "She said: 'So, this snooker thing you do? It's actually quite serious?' But she still didn't really get it. When she came to see me play at the Masters, that's when she got it.
"I'm madly in love with her. It's a big weight off your shoulders when you realise that this thing you've been chasing and chasing and chasing isn't the be all and end all - there are other things out there after all. You also start looking at friends with families and thinking: 'That might be nice for me.'"
|Murphy's Crucible record since 2005|
|Final||2 (won in 2005, lost in 2009)|
|Semi-finals||1 (lost 17-16 to Selby in 2007)|
|Quarter-finals||4 (2006, 2010, 2013, 2014)|
|2nd round||2 (2008, 2011)|
|1st round||1 (2012)|
Murphy recently moved from Sale to Nottingham to support his fiancée's career - she is an assistant professor of chemical biology at Nottingham University - and is confident his new-found contentment will bear more fruit on the baize.
"The goal is to win at least one more World Championship," he says. "There are a few household names who have never won it and not many have won more than one.
"But Ronnie will be the man to beat again this year, just as he is every time he picks his cue up. He'll have had a few weeks off, because he didn't play the China Open, and he will have been practising his whatsits off, believe you me.
"Whenever he says he's not bothered about winning, that means he's really keen and we all up our practice. I think someone should tell Ronnie that no-one falls for it. He's as hungry to win as anybody."
O'Sullivan might be the man to beat but Murphy will be the happiest man in Sheffield - a wise man playing like a kid again. We've worked out his secret.