Snooker: Whirlwind out to blow the house down one more time

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He may have the seven world titles but Stephen Hendry is just another player who will almost certainly never get to experience the kind of reception accorded to Jimmy White when the Whirlwind blows out on to the Wembley Arena stage at the Masters this evening.

If the wild card handed to the 47-year-old White by the newly installed World Snooker chairman, Barry Hearn, for the prestigious invitation event looks generous on form, it was a no-brainer in box-office terms – and his fiercely loyal army of fans will be queuing around the block to catch a glimpse of his match with Essex's Mark King tonight.

What is it about White that inspires such devotion? Part of it is the national obsession with the underdog. White's failure to convert one of his six world championship final appearances into the ultimate prize, four times at Hendry's hands, left him scarred and the watching millions horrified.

But there is more to it than that. White has always combined an Artful Dodger charm off the table with considerable panache on it, even if those powers are waning – and a cheery personality also served him well in the jungle last month on the TV reality show 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here'.

During the UK Championships at Telford last month, a common view was that the Wembley wild card was a toss-up between emerging star Liang Wenbo and White, with the Chinese player 50 places ahead in the rankings.

However, the 1984 champion White insists he is well worth his place and is optimistic about the future of the sport in Hearn's hands. He said: "I did win a couple of tournaments this year, so I think I deserved it. If Wenbo had won the UK, it might have been different.

"I love everything that Barry is about, what he wants for the game and the way he wants players to entertain. When I started it was Alex Higgins, then I had a go, and now you have Ronnie O'Sullivan. People should have a bit of fun, and show some emotion."

World No 1 O'Sullivan is also in no doubt as to the wisdom of White's inclusion. He said: "Jimmy being there on Sunday night will give the tournament a fantastic kick-start, it can provide the momentum for the whole week."

King is not the type to be easily intimidated, but you wouldn't bet against White bringing the Wembley house down one more time.