Snooker: Contenders wait on O'Sullivan's shoulder

Champion is on course to retain his title but, says Clive Everton, only if he succeeds in exorcising the personal demons
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The Independent Online

Five world champions – John Spencer, Terry Griffiths, Steve Davis, Dennis Taylor and Stephen Hendry – have failed to survive the opening match of their title defence at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, but the odds lengthened on Ronnie O'Sullivan suffering a similar fate as he adjourned for lunch with a 6-3 lead over the Scot Drew Henry in their best-of-19-frames contest.

O'Sullivan's best is sublime, but he has the classic emotional volatility of the manic depressive. He does not like losing, but sometimes it comes as a relief.

In December he won his third UK Championship, but it remains his only title of the season. He has recently lost to two up-and-coming young lads, Mark Selby and Barry Hawkins, and not seemed too bothered about it.

Henry led O'Sullivan 2-1 and had a fleeting chance of 3-1 when the champion, in with 57, chose to pursue a 147 maximum by opting for a risky black rather than making sure of the frame with an easy blue. But when Henry's attempted clearance soon fizzled out, O'Sullivan added 54 to level at 2-2 and, with 59 in the next, he found himself with a 3-2 lead.

The Scot's most authoritative frame was the sixth, which he dominated with runs of 61 and 55, but he could total only five points from the remaining three of the morning as O'Sullivan dropped into threateningly fluent vein with 94, 91 and 45.

Graeme Dott, a 24-year-old Scot, will resume this morning with a 6-3 lead over Robin Hull, whose defeat of Steve Davis in the final qualifying round condemned the six-times champion of the Eighties to a pundit-only role for 17 days. Dott won two scrappy frames and another with an 80 break to lead 3-0.

Born in Helsinki to a Finnish mother and an English father, Hull is by a distance Finland's best player, and this has been the best of his eight professional seasons. However, the 27-year-old Finn could not maintain control of the cue ball on the exceptionally fast cloth until he was 4-1 down, but then opened the sixth with a break of 40 and held on to win it.

In the seventh, he produced the shot of the session. Unluckily snookering himself on five colours in potting a red, he had no safety shot from the only edge of the green he could hit. After 85 seconds' consideration, he brilliantly cut the green to a baulk pocket and made 91 from it to close to 3-4.

Dott restricted him, though, to only 17 points in the remaining two frames as he regained a three-frame advantage.

Matthew Stevens established a commanding 7-2 overnight lead over a Crucible debutant, Mike Dunn, the world No 72.

David Gray was the surprise runner-up to Stephen Lee in the Regal Scottish Open, beating John Higgins, Mark King, Stephen Hendry and Peter Ebdon in the process, but scarcely looked the same player as he conceded 6-3 overnight arrears to King. In a session full of errors, Gray recovered from 3-1 down to 3-3, but King regained the lead with the highest break of the afternoon, 76, and added the two remaining frames of the day.

Other than O'Sullivan, the obvious title contenders are John Higgins, who has won four tournaments this season, Mark Williams, Stephen Lee and Paul Hunter, who have won two each, and Hendry, winner of December's European Open and seeking his eighth world title.

Higgins, the 1998 world champion, won a hat-trick of titles in early season before being distracted by the birth of his baby son. His performance level dipped in mid-season but was triumphantly restored at last month's Irish Masters.With his concentration wavering, he lost early in the Regal Scottish Open, but will be so highly motivated here that his mindset should look after itself.

Williams, the 2000 World Champion, won the China Open and Thailand Masters back to back, and something more akin to his Shanghai and Bangkok form can be expected on Tuesday afternoon when he opposes John Parrott, the 1991 champion, who will be appearing at the Crucible for a 19th consecutive year.

Lee, winner of the L. G. Cup in October and Regal Scottish Open this month, had earned more ranking points this season than any other player. If a new name is to be inscribed on the 75 year-old trophy, his is the most likely.

However, he faces a prospective second-round match with Hunter, who followed his capture of the Regal Welsh Open in January by retaining the Benson and Hedges Masters at Wembley.

The Yorkshireman, who is recovering from testicular surgery, will walk out to play the Australian Quintin Hann on Tuesday.