Alien force enters Hendry's orbit

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The Independent Online
There is a conference in Sheffield this weekend devoted to sightings of UFOs, and the sky-gazing spilled over to the Crucible Theatre yesterday as the even rarer sight of a possible Stephen Hendry defeat in the Embassy World Championships loomed into orbit. The alien life-form who the five times world champion found blocking his path to fulfilment went by the name of Jason Ferguson, ranked 29th and given no chance of beating the superior being.

Yet by the end of yesterday morning's dramatic opening session Ferguson led the champion by six frames to three, therefore requiring only four of the evening session's 10 frames to complete a shock eminently bigger than the first-round dismissals of the champions Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis in 1986 and 1982 respectively.

Some measure of the potential upheaval could be gauged by the statistics which framed this apparently unthinkable event. Hendry was an odds-on favourite to win the championship and 1-50 to win this match, with Ferguson being given the sort of "Elvis Presley Found Living On Moon" price of 500-1.

Moreover, the 26-year-old from Nottingham, who has not won a tournament in his professional career, had only taken two frames off Hendry in their previous three meetings, two of which had ended in him being whitewashed by the Scot. To put further perspective on a morning which genuinely shocked a packed Crucible, Hendry had dismissed each of his first-round opponents in the last three years by 10 frames to one. So this was snooker, but not as we had expected it.

Yet all the omens seemed in Hendry's favour as he fulfilled the reigning champion's obligation of opening the proceedings. He looked calm and confident, in contrast to Ferguson whose face was flushed with tension.

Yet the rank outsider took the first frame 69-9 to settle his butterflies. It may be fanciful, but one wondered if the presence of Steve James - the last player to beat Hendry at the Crucible in 1991 - at the adjacent table was having an unsettling effect. Hendry's first century break (104) in the second frame soon put an end to this notion, but there was a certain wooliness about the champion's safety play, and Ferguson soon led 3-1.

Looking dapper in his maroon waistcoat, Ferguson was soon fulfiling his promise to exclude Hendry from his thoughts. "I have a meditation routine which can send electronic impulses through my body so I can repeat the shots that I have imagined," Ferguson had warned on Friday.

This may have sounded like more fodder for the UFO- watchers, but Ferguson's trance whenever he was seated resembled the routines of Arthur Ashe when he overturned the hot favourite Jimmy Connors in the famed Wimbledon final of 1975.

Ferguson needed all his mental powers to recover from Hendry's second century-break in the fifth frame, which the champion took 118-1. But Ferguson snapped back to win the sixth 67-0, and held his nerve to take a tense seventh frame.

It was during this frame that Hendry first began sending out distress signals. Having established an opening break of 42, he missed an angled red and went on to miss several other chances as Ferguson opened up the table. Hendry also went in-off twice and then fouled when he missed a red on a safety shot.

With Tony Drago romping away from James on the other table, the partition was raised to allow the rest of the auditorium in on the unexpectedly rough passage for the champion. When Hendry completed his erratic display by sinking the cue-ball off the brown, Ferguson pounced to establish a 5-2 lead and a distinct psychological advantage.

The cheers were all for the underdog as the players took a much-needed toilet break, and though Hendry won the eighth frame easily, Ferguson's pre-lunch riposte was his own century break of 129 to take a 6-3 lead into an evening session which most experienced pundits had thought would be over before nightfall.

Understandably, the day's other sessions of play paled by comparison as the Crucible's galleries spread the news of Hendry's difficulties and anticipated the possibility that the brightest star in the snooker firmament might fall to earth.