Ebdon makes confident start to first world final

Snooker

The pictures implied volumes. As the final of the Embassy World Championship was about to start yesterday television cameras intruded on the last moments backstage. There was Stephen Hendry sitting nonchalantly like he was waiting for a bus; Peter Ebdon was biting his nails.

A walk-over for the five-times champion they seemed to say, except Ebdon was not listening. Last night he was clinging on to Hendry's coat-tails, trailing 7-6 in the best-of 35 contest.

Ebdon, the world No 10, says he approaches his best when the pressure is strongest and you do not get anything more vehement than Hendry at The Crucible. "When there's a lot of tension I seem to zone in," Ebdon said. "That's when I play my best snooker."

Empty words without the deeds to back them up, and while his manicurist may have been cringing, the nervousness implied by the bitten nails did not manifest itself on the table. The first frame was a statement of intent from the challenger, breaks of 33 and 79 pinning the champion to his seat.

Hendry, by his own admission, short of his best form, replied by taking the next frame 75-42 but he was holding on as Ebdon made the pace, taking a 4-3 lead after the first session.

So far in this tournament, Hendry has begun slowly and then pulled away in the second session. He was being reined in by his opponent's tardy play, however - Ebdon was occupying the table for 60 per cent of the time while making breaks that averaged lower - and the first two frames in the evening were dire.

Ominously for Ebdon, it was Hendry who won them both and in the 10th frame of the match the champion cut loose. Fifteen reds and 15 blacks were potted, putting him in line for a 147 break and a prize of pounds 147,000. Only the brown, hard against the baulk cushion halted him.

Whatever the result in the final, this championship has been a watershed in the career of Ebdon. Before it, the greatest impression the 25-year- old from Wellingborough had made upon the greater consciousness was as a pony-tailed 10-4 eliminator of Steve Davis in 1992. Then he had been a one-day story, this time he has been more enduring.

Indeed, his time in Sheffield has formed a sort of sub-plot to the tribulations and trial of Ronnie O'Sullivan. While the Rocket was being questioned because he assaulted a press officer, Ebdon's game has undergone a thorough interrogation on the table.

His matches against Jimmy White, Steve Davis and O'Sullivan - won 13- 12, 13-10, 16-14 - have belied his image as a bottler in important matches, an impression reinforced by his losing three finals this season. "It's incredible what my opponents have hit me with this week," he said. "If you were to pick the 10 greatest snooker players of all time, they would be among them."

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