Alex Marshall, four-times world indoor bowls champion, subsided on to a chair in the press lounge at the Potters Leisure Centre yesterday evening looking distinctly flushed. The 40-year-old Scot had just played the woman who has made history this week in the male environ of the World Indoor Championships, Ceri Ann Davies, and had edged through to the quarter-final only on the tightest of tie-breaks after his 29-year-old Welsh-born opponent, now representing Australia, had recovered from losing the first set 6-4 to take the second by 8-6.
"Jesus, what a match," said Marshall, wiping his perspiring brow. "She was absolutely brilliant. She wasn't just getting one shot in, she was getting three up. I was expecting a hard game against her, but she was absolutely awesome. I didn't have a clue what length to play. Every time I changed it I was losing it. It's probably the toughest game I've ever played."
Davies – who was christened with two Christian names but whose monicker has elided into one word in bowling circles over recent years – had reached this eye-catching match by virtue of becoming the first woman to win a match at these championships. Victories over England's Glenn Skipp and then New Zealand's world No 16 Jamie Hill earned her the opportunity of playing the biggest game of her life against the man she describes as "the best bowls player on the planet".
Although women have made their mark on the game in recent years – no female has done as well as this former psychology lecturer at Swansea University who quit Wales four years ago after meeting the Australian bowler who is now her fiance, Mark Casey.
"That was the most enjoyable game I've ever played, and I lost," said Davies. "I don't think I could have played any better. I didn't do anything wrong. But I've learned so much.
"I hope that for future years I've done enough so that people will think, rather than being that token chick in the tournament, I was a player to be reckoned with."
As Marshall, a thickly-set bear of a man, was introduced, Davies – her bleach-streaked hair caught back into a jaunty ponytail – made the hands-down gesture indicating "we are not worthy". But everything she did thereafter gave the lie to that notion.
Before the tournament began, Marshall had offered Davies encouragement in her forthcoming efforts, and jokingly hoped he would not have to meet her himself, as he had never played a woman before. Also in jestful fashion, she had offered him advice should that event occur – "keep your head down and play your normal game". But Marshall found that difficult against a player who kept him constantly guessing and used the pressure of the occasion cleverly in her own favour, actively bantering with the crowd.
As an expert in body language, Davies gave a command performance here. Her chats and jokes, while being natural, also created the impression of relaxation. As she stood at the head watching her opponent's shots arrive, her stance was also considered – legs slightly apart, hands often in pockets. Again, the impression was jaunty. But even she was unable to cover up the odd blowing out of her cheeks, or nervous clicking of her fingers as play grew intense.
Having won three consecutive ends to go 3-1 up in the first set, she saw Marshall work his way back to take it 6-4. After establishing a 3-1 lead in the second, she stood three up again in what could have been a decisive third end, but Marshall reduced the damage to one with his last shot, and then recovered to 4-3.
Davies, however, then established what turned out to be a decisive lead by winning the sixth of the nine ends 3-0, taking the score to 7-3 before forcing a tie-break. But Marshall marshalled his resources to take the best-of-three tie break 2-0, claiming the first end with his last shot, and then earning ultimate victory after forcing Davies into a firing shot that just misfired.
"I like him even more now," Davies said. "I wish he was an arsehole, but he's not. It's just a pity I couldn't live up to the hype. Sorry."
There was absolutely no need to apologise. All the hype was justified. And Marshall's gesture at the end of raising her arm as if she were a boxer, although she shrugged it off, was generated by real respect.