Snooker: Murphy on top of world as Stevens suffers in thriller

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Shaun Murphy last night became the first qualifier for 26 years to claim the world championship title after defeating Matthew Stevens 18-16 in an epic see-saw battle.

Shaun Murphy last night became the first qualifier for 26 years to claim the world championship title after defeating Matthew Stevens 18-16 in an epic see-saw battle.

A capacity crowd at The Crucible cheered to the rafters as their adopted hero, who relocated from Northamptonshire to Rotherham last year to be with his fiancee, Clare, completed a clinching break of 83 in the 34th frame.

"People have kept saying how calm I've looked during the tournament," said the 22-year-old Murphy, who became the second-youngest champion after Stephen Hendry, who won at 21. "But I've been shaking like a leaf most of the time. It is an honour and a privilege to win."

Asked how he intends to spend his £250,000 winner's cheque, which is £235,000 more than his previous biggest pay day, he confirmed he will be buying a Mercedes. "And I can have air conditioning in it now," he added. He will also foot the bill for his wedding in July. "The man's main job in the preparations is to pay for it," he joked. "At least that's sorted."

Murphy, a committed Christian who met Clare in an internet chatroom, added that he prepared for each session of the final with his usual pre-match prayer. "It helps me focus," he said. Only God knows quite how much divine intervention played a part in Murphy's triumph, but the fates were not working solely on him. Fate, cruel fate, destined Stevens not just to defeat but to an exact replica of the defeat he suffered in his previous final five years ago.

On that occasion, against Mark Williams, he took an overnight lead of 10-6 into the concluding day. He did so against Murphy as well. In 2000, he went on to lose the final 18-16. It was the same story last night.

"It was a cracking snooker match tonight," Stevens said afterwards, his face betraying his obvious and perfectly understandable disappointment. "And the way Shaun performed, he was a superstar."

It was a landmark final, being the last under the auspices of Embassy, whose 30-year association with the showpiece has now gone up in smoke. The most significant effect for the players is that they are unlikely to compete again for a winner's cheque as big as yesterday's.

Certainly there is no prospect in the near future, with no replacement sponsor lined up and no potential sponsor likely to pour a total prize fund of £1.12m into a single event. Giving up tobacco can be tough.

So can winning the world title. From 10-6 down at the start of play yesterday, Murphy won three of the first four frames. He hit a break of 51 to help him to 10-7, then a 56 and 28 for 10-8. Both players were missing shots and playing average safety, and if at times it was no great spectacle, the drama and tension compensated.

Stevens edged a nervy next frame for 11-8 but Murphy found his form and bottle when it mattered. In response to Stevens making 60 in the 20th frame, Murphy produced a wonderful clearance of 80 for 11-9.

A fearless pot through a narrow gap in the pack to the middle pocket started another superb break, of 137, to win the next for 11-10. Had he missed his opener, Stevens would have been among the balls and in with a good chance of a frame-winning break.

The 22nd frame was an oddity, with the black knocked across the bottom right pocket, surrounded by reds. Murphy eventually had the nerve to smack the pack and free the black. Bravery had its reward when he won the frame after both players had missed a chances to win. 11-11. Stevens edged ahead to 12-11 after a Murphy miss, then the afternoon session ended early to allow the players to rest before a 7pm restart.

By the evening mid-session break, Murphy was ahead by a single frame - 14-13. A composed 107 won the evening's first frame for 12-12. It was his third century of the final and 11th of the tournament. He then came from behind in the 25th frame to snatch it with a 55 break. That put him ahead in the match for the first time since winning the opening frame on Sunday.

Stevens hit back with a 95 to make it 13-13. Murphy made a decisive break of 64 in the next to edge ahead to 14-13. Murphy took the next with a 68 break, then Stevens the next with a 68. 15-14. Murphy scrapped to 16-14 up but still Stevens came back, first with a cool 124, then a break of 52. That made it 16-16.

Murphy stroked in a 97 for 17-16 and then 83 to lift the trophy.

The omens were there. Back in 1979 when Terry Griffiths won as a qualifer, he did so in the week of a general election and shortly before Arsenal played Manchester United in the FA Cup final. If Murphy's victory now becomes an omen in itself, expect a Tory win on Thursday (admittedly not by Maggie Thatcher) and the Gunners to lift the Cup. Well, Arsenal have a chance.

World Championship Final (Sheffield, best of 35 frames): S Murphy (Eng) beat M Stevens (Wal) 18-16. Frame scores (Murphy first): 67-30; 0-98; 20-103; 68-55; 29-65; 22-65; 76-34; 46-56; 53-58; 38-70; 125-0 (125 break); 79-6; 24-105; 5-86; 103-9; 56-68; 78-22; 84-11; 5-64; 80-60; 137-0 (137 break); 64-57; 20-88; 131-0 (107 break); 72-35; 0-95; 81-4; 68-37; 1-83; 85-35; 0-124 (124 break); 1-71; 97-0; 83-28.

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