Davis endeavours to extend his era of influence

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The Independent Online
Guy Hodgson talks to a past master preparing for the World Snooker Championships, which start on Friday

The image on the television screen was the past and future for Steve Davis. He was watching Dennis Taylor scrape a last-frame victory, prodding a jagged memory to life. At the same time he was confronting his destiny.

Taylor was not fighting for a World Championship, as he had done when a ghostly pale Davis had watched him pot the final black in the 1985 final, but for his snooker life. Defeat, and the Irishman would drop out of the world's top 32 and into the wilderness of tournament qualifying. An old champion was being overtaken by youth.

At 37, Davis was aware he was watching his own future. He is preparing for the Embassy World Snooker Championships, which begin on Friday, knowing the number of times he will be a contender is dwindling. Six times the winner, his last victory at The Crucible was six years ago. How many more times would his prospects in Sheffield be genuine and not the sort gilt- edged merely by previous conquest?

"I haven't a clue," he replied with a sang-froid that was surprising. "It could be that I tenaciously hold on for many years or I could go down the pan very quickly. If all of a sudden in three or four years time I'm struggling like Dennis, it would be natural to go. I regard my longevity as a mark of whether I was a great player, but it'll be obvious when it's time to go."

Davis had been commentating on the first half of the Taylor match and was prowling in pursuit of losing an excess of energy, preferring to stand and talk rather than resume the sedentary position he had occupied for the previous two hours. In the past, his inclination would have been to work it off on the practice table, but he has cut the chains of labour, preferring to hone his game with short bursts of two hours.

It is, he says, a sign that his game is in good health. "Maybe it's a defence mechanism, too," he conceded, "to play a little bit less. I do struggle now more than I used to with motivation and enthusiasm. At 37 it's not a clever idea to belt it out every day, I'm just ticking over.

"If you've got a problem, of course you try to sort it out. If there's something missing, you need repetition of body movement to build muscle memory so it becomes a habit. At the moment, most of the habits are good ones."

The facts would seem to endorse his opinion. He lost to John Higgins in the quarter-finals of the British Open last week - a defeat that solved his dilemma over whether a lengthy run in Plymouth might impair his World Championship build-up - but he arrives in Sheffield as the second seed. He also won the Welsh Open - his 70th major title - in January, which suggests the disruption of having to adapt to a new cue has been minimised.

At one time Davis would have been mortified to use a different tool, but deteriorating form two years ago made him query whether the curve in his old cue was making him hit slightly across the ball. A change was made and when the new cue was damaged at the turn of the year, he borrowed the one nearest to hand, belonging to his father, Bill. The loan has become permanent.

"I picked up his cue up because frankly I had nothing else to practise with," he said, "and as soon as I did I thought `this feels nice'. It's a replica of my original one, anyway, and, on reflection, the change probably hasn't hurt me. The cue has a fatter butt and I have fairly long fingers, so perhaps I should have been playing with something similar in the first place."

Davis has a new cue, but the mastery of the Eighties eludes him, partly because standards have rocketed. Never again, he believes, will a player dominate as he did in the last decade and Stephen Hendry has this. Then again, there is the eroding process of having been at the pinnacle and trying to stay there.

"It would be very easy to show examples that I'm a worse player now," he continued. "You could show a frame and say `you don't pot as many of those as you used to do' or `you don't look as serene'. But I believe I'm better.

"One thing that's not considered is that the pockets are harder now. You cannot convince club players that we don't play on easier pockets than them but, believe me, they are. You hear `that would never have gone in on my table' which is quite funny really. It's absolute rubbish.

"The accuracy level is higher so you're bound to miss more. You move eras. You know you get `would Joe Davis beat Steve Davis?' Well the modern day player would slaughter anybody from the past. This lot would have slaughtered anyone from the Eighties.

"I'm one of the few people who has gone through both eras and done it successfully. I couldn't possibly win everything now - it's too hard, I'm one of a cast of double figures who could win the World Championships, whereas before it was three or four. If that."

The scent of a seventh title is in his nostrils. "I enjoy the build-up to The Crucible," he said. "I enjoy the nerves, I love the fear. Maybe I need to be frightened to be at my best."

Ten years on from his great final with Taylor, Davis finds that pinnacle more elusive, but still sufficiently within reach to provide hope. If he does hit it at Sheffield, then another title may be his and the Steve Davis era will have been extended. That is what urges him on.