The removal of Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O'Sullivan from the Embassy World Championship has had several players daring to look ahead with anticipation at the Crucible, but if the surprises of the first round have left anyone being ushered forward to plunder the emptying cupboard it is Matthew Stevens.
Bookmakers are not daft and as Hendry and O'Sullivan made mental arrangements to do something gruesome to the nearest irritant with their temporarily redundant cues, the odds scribblers were hard at work whittling Stevens' odds on winning the £240,000 first prize plummeted from 10/1 to 5/2. Given that his provisional world rank for next season, seventh, is higher than anyone left in the top half of the draw, you can fathom their reasoning.
Hendry was scheduled to be Stevens' quarter-final opponent and O'Sullivan his date in the semi-finals, so the 22-year-old Welshman has every reason to have the smug satisfaction of a statesman watching long-standing foes turning instead to inflict damage on each other. Not that he would dream of it.
Stevens may be young but he exhibits little of the rashness that is normally associated with his age and if you had to find an adjective to describe him it would be quiet. Not surprisingly he was circumspect yesterday when it was put to him his path was open wide as if someone had suggested he ought to celebrate his 10-2 victory over Tony Drago with a Jimmy White-style party.
"I don't know whether the way matches have gone is a good or a bad thing," he said, layering wariness with caution. "I just have to concentrate on my own game because there's a lot of good players out there. My odds have fallen, but that's the way bookmakers work."
Certainly there was nothing yesterday to persuade them to labour in the opposite direction. Ahead 7-2 overnight, Stevens rattled off the three frames needed in 37 minutes, with the dem- eanour of a man who had a simple task to get out of the way. Yesterday morning's shopping was probably more pressure.
Drago is a dangerous opponent who can amass points at a rapid rate when he is in the right mood - he holds a world record of a frame in three minutes - but Stevens did not let him start the engine, never mind fly. Breaks of 75, 91 and 61 meant the match was over, with either Alan McManus or Nigel Bond as Stevens' opponent.
Ken Doherty, the 1997 champion, hardly let the moss grow either in dispatching Darren Morgan 10-3. Like Stevens he did not concede a frame yesterday moving from an overnight 6-3 in less than an hour while compiling breaks of 101 and 75 on the way.
"I was expecting a tougher match," he admitted. "Darren's a very good player and he hammered me here a few years ago. He has always been a good competitor and he's just had a bit of a hard time on and off the table these last few years. I just took my chances when they came."
Doherty is in the bottom half and is not a beneficiary of Hendry and O'Sullivan's demise, but that is not to say he is unaffected by it. "Who isn't surprised?" he asked. "It's really weird, the likes of two of the top four gone already. Stuart Bingham and David Gray were always tough on paper but at the Crucible, over 19 frames, you don't think it's going to happen.
"I think it creates a great buzz to the tournament. There's a great atmosphere and there could be a few more shocks yet."
Steve Davis was not nervy, but he was not quick either and his first-round match against Graeme Dott had to be pulled off the table three frames early yesterday. Not that the six-times world champion was anything but happy as, at 6-0 up, he needs only four frames this morning.
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