Iceland has only five snooker clubs and 50 tables, but its best player, Kristjan Helgason, was last night closing in on a place in the televised phase of the Embassy World Championship. He held a 6-3 interval lead over Northern Ireland's No 30, Terry Murphy, in the final round of the qualifying tournament at Newport.
The Crucible's 17-day marathon of the mind runs from 15 April to 1 May, but some of the 16 qualifiers who go into this afternoon's draw (live on BBC TV) to be paired against 16 seeds will already have survived a psychological assault course every bit as testing.
The 25-year-old Helgason, European amateur champion four years ago and now 104th in the professional rankings, arrived at Newport last Monday and four wins later was still there yesterday, only Murphy blocking his road to Sheffield. His first three wins were over Shailesh Jogia 10-5, John Lardner, a Scot who qualified last year, 10-2, and the 1986 world champion, Joe Johnson, 10-5.
"Kristjan looks like a player with a great future," said Johnson generously. "He's very good at taking advantage of any errors. One mistake and the frame can be all over."
Against Rod Lawler, the world No 51, next day, Helgason's dogged streak earned him a niche in the record books as the 60-minute ninth frame produced an aggregate of 177 points, the highest in the 73- year history of the championship. Having needed three snookers on the yellow and another on the blue to tie, Helgason potted the extra black to win 92-85 for a 5-4 interval lead. But in the evening he fell two behind with three to play before pulling through 10-9.
Even after two rounds, Helgason had admitted he was tired. "There's more and more pressure with each round," he said. Even so, he had relieved the financial pressure foreign players have to endure as they are forced to commute to Britain for all qualifying competitions. Simply by reaching the last qualifying round, he assured himself of £10,000 and enough ranking points to keep him on the world-rankingcircuit next season. (The bottom 24 from this 128-man elite will be relegated.)
Helgason has also attracted the goodwill of those who believe that the circuit, often perceived as a British preserve with a smattering of foreign interlopers, needs to become more cosmopolitan, not only to enhance its marketability but to reflect rising overseas standards. But only four of next season's 24 newcomers under the restrictive system now in force will not be drawn from the British feeder tour.