Snooker: Higgins shrugs off early nerves to thwart Stevens' fightback

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The Independent Online

Six returning title-holders have perished in their opening match here but despite fears to the contrary, John Higgins convincingly avoided becoming the seventh with an eye-catching performance on day one of the World Championship.

Any thoughts that Higgins, who has failed to reach the last four in ranking tournaments this season, would fall at the earliest opportunity were dispelled by his 10-5 victory over Matthew Stevens, a player boasting a distinguished Crucible pedigree.

Stevens, twice a finalist and three times a semi-finalist since 2000, led 2-1 before Higgins shrugged off early hesitancy to storm through the following six frames for a commanding 7-2 lunchtime advantage.

Steve Davis, the defending champion on six occasions, once noted that the first-day atmosphere is stifling. "The first shock hasn't happened yet and you can't help worrying it might be you," he said. Hence the genuine concern of Higgins last night as Stevens rallied to trail only 7-5.

Stevens also had the initial chance in the 13th frame but, using the rest, expensively jawed a red to a baulk pocket. Higgins stepped in with a nerve-settling run of 75 and, his momentum regained, swiftly plundered the next two games with breaks of 120 and 103.

"After I nicked the fourth to go 2-2, I scored very heavily and that's always good for boosting your confidence," said Higgins. "I know from personal experience that you can't lift the trophy here without doing that." He now meets Ryan Day or Michael Judge in the last 16.

"I tried to block out the fact that he was coming back at me. I kept telling myself that I was still in front and the one in the driver's seat. I was determined to stay positive, no matter what," Higgins added. "When I drew Matthew I was gutted but I realised he was under a lot of pressure because he needed to win the match to get back into the top 16 in the rankings next season. He probably felt even more sick about the draw than I did.

"I don't deserve any plaudits or anyone predicting that I'm going to win here again. I've had a poor season but I feel I'm really well prepared and I know in my own mind I've got as good a shot at this as anyone."

It was the first time in 11 visits to the sport's most famous venue that Stevens, a former Masters and UK champion, has been eliminated in the first round.

Australian Neil Robertson, who resumes this morning with a 7-2 lead over Nigel Bond, has not played as well this year as he did in winning two ranking titles last season. But breaks of 70, 70 and 80 showed that the 26-year-old left-hander was in fine fettle.

Jamie Cope, a 22-year-old from Stoke who has already appeared in two ranking finals, marked his debut here by taking a 5-2 lead over Peter Ebdon before the 2002 world champion replied with breaks of 87 and 103 to limit his overnight arrears to 5-4.

Joe Swail, twice a semi-finalist at the Crucible, resumes this evening with a 7-2 lead over Stephen Lee, runner-up in the Masters at Wembley in January.

Having won two titles this season, Ronnie O'Sullivan is favourite for the world title. Mark Selby and Stephen Maguire have also won twice this year, and Shaun Murphy, outstandingly consistent, comes here as provisional No 1 in the world rankings.