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Ebdon's crack at the Crucible

Peter Ebdon knows how it feels to be tested in the Crucible, the Sheffield theatre which has been the home of the World Championship for 20 years.

At the end of the 17 days, which start next Saturday, the champion gets his hands on a trophy which was bought out of the 10 entry fees for the original championship 70 years ago. "I'm one of half a dozen players capable of winning it," said Ebdon, whose run to last year's final helped him become world No 3.

As snooker's rankings last for a season, this sets up a prospective semi-finalwith the world No 2, John Higgins. Stephen Hendry, attempting to win his sixth world title in succession, is in the top half. Hendry's 18-12 win in last year's final did not provide a memorable climax, because Ebdon's well of concentration had run all but dry from three epic wins over Jimmy White, Steve Davis and Ronnie O'Sullivan.

It is Hendry who could have the same problem this year. Having already won five titles, he is far from fresh and Andy Hicks could threaten him on the opening day. The seedings envisage strong challenges in the next two rounds from Mark Williams, who beat him 9-2 in last week's British Open final, and O'Sullivan, potentially the greatest talent of them all.

"I don't think Stephen's ever faced that level of opposition early on," Ebdon said. "It may make no difference. I think Stephen's the greatest player there's ever been. I've got something special but it's more me the person rather than me the player."

The 26-year-old Londoner has always known what he wants and been prepared to pursue it single-mindedly. Academically bright, he was playing the oboe and bowling leg spin for London Schools when he caused a serious rift - now healed - with his father by opting at the age of 16 to play snooker full time.

Basing himself at King's Cross Snooker Club, he competed - and won - here, there and everywhere from the Tottenham Night Flyer to the World Under-21 Championship in Brisbane and the Finland Open in Helsinki.

In his first professional season, 1991, he made a 147 break and came through to the Crucible from the first qualifying round. Contemplating his debut there against Davis, he said: "I know what's inside him. I'm made of the same stuff." He beat the six times world champion 10-4 in reaching the quarter-finals.

The crowds liked his transparent drive and desire and his pony tail helped him be seen, as one press room wag put it, as "a breath of fresh hair". Wanting recognition for performance rather than plumage, he soon consigned the pony tail to a glass case at his father-in-law's but the resolve was unchanged as in five seasons he rose to become England's No1 with only two Scots in front of him on the world list.

"I didn't work hard enough or early enough in the summer," said Ebdon, explaining his poor pre-Christmas form in the present campaign. He did win the Regal Scottish Masters in September but then came three consecutive first-round defeats: "For whatever reason I did stop enjoying it and then I started trying too hard, thinking about maintaining my ranking."

Without realising it, he became one of the slowest players on the circuit, partly through loss of confidence, partly through considering every shot option at length rather than trusting his instincts. Forcing himself to speed up, he started to play better and won the Thailand Open last month. He comes to the Crucible as the only player in the bottom half to have won two titles this season.

"Funny. Last season I was very consistent and didn't win a title. This season I've been inconsistent and won two."

Exceptionally tenacious, he will not lack the self-belief, even the sense of destiny, to seize the greatest title of them all if the chance presents itself.