Snooker: Nerves affect Murphy's campaign to emulate Griffiths' world title coup

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The Independent Online

The last qualifier to reach the world championship final was Terry Griffiths, 26 years ago, and he won it. Shaun Murphy's quest to emulate him got off to a stuttering start yesterday, leaving him trailing 6-10 to Matthew Stevens in a best-of-35 showdown that recommences at 2.30pm this afternoon.

Griffiths's triumph came in the same week as a general election and shortly before Arsenal and Manchester United contested the FA Cup final. That was in 1979, but such omens will probably have escaped Murphy. He wasn't born until 1982.

Stevens is probably best to ignore another omen. The only time in the last decade when a player with an overnight lead subsequently lost the final, the player was leading 10-6. That player was Stevens, in the 2000 final against Mark Williams.

Murphy's tender years have not hampered him in a brilliant run to the final but the world No 48's nerves were evident yesterday. He won the first frame but lost four of the next five, mostly due to uncharacteristic errors, to fall 2-4 behind.

By the start of the 11th frame, he was 3-7 down, and the overall quality, until that point, was dire. Play was slow, error-strewn and frustrating to watch. As one wag in the press gallery said: "Bring back Peter Ebdon, the great entertainer!"

Frame-winning breaks of 125 and 66 brought some relief, for Murphy and the crowd alike, to make it 5-7 at the mid-session interval. Stevens then hit a 73 for 8-5, and an 86-break for 9-5. Murphy rallied with a hit of 84 for 6-9 but then ceded 20 points from five straight misses in a crazy last frame.

Just as the 1979 election winner, Margaret Thatcher, was famously not for turning, so Murphy's attacking approach is non-negotiable. When it works, it can be mesmerising, as it was as he eliminated three former champions ­ John Higgins, Steve Davis and Peter Ebdon.

When it does not, he becomes a hostage to fortune. On his first visit of the day to the table he hit a break of 39, including a dangerous long red, mid-break, with no apparent fear. He then edged to 64-22, leaving Stevens needing two snookers. The Welshman got them, indicating fragility in Murphy's safety, but Murphy got the red he required.

Stevens then requested the white ball be changed because it did not seem heavy enough. With a new ball and Murphy's helpful mistakes, he went 2-1 up.

In the fourth frame Stevens missed a pink and Murphy doubled it with a fluke for 2-2. Good fortune has been on his side in this landmark tournament, the 30th and last to carry the name Embassy. But it, like the tobacco endorsement, then went up in smoke.

Murphy's aim is to become the second-youngest champion ever, after Stephen Hendry, who won the first of his seven titles in 1990, aged 21. Whatever happens today, the 22-year-old is guaranteed his biggest pay day. The winner takes £250,000, the runner-up £125,000. Murphy's take will come in handy for his July wedding to his fiancee, Clare, who he met via a Christian chatroom on the internet. That's not something you could say in 1979.

At the start of play yesterday, Stevens was arguably under the most pressure, knowing defeat would cement comparisons with "nearly man" Jimmy White, a six-time finalist but never the champion. Stevens has lost one final, in 2000, as well as three semis in the last four years. He will resume play today under less pressure ­ if omens are irrelevant to him.

World Championship (The Crucible, Sheffield) Final: M Stevens leads S Murphy 10-6. Semi-finals: Murphy bt P Ebdon 17-12; Stevens bt I McCulloch 17-14.