Stevens leads charge of Crucible's young brigade

Welshman has style to succeed in campaign for World Snooker Championship, which begins on Saturday
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The Independent Online

When Sandra Stevens decided what she wanted to mark her child's 10th birthday and approached a house she had never been to before she did not know she was bringing together the past with the future. Her son was snooker mad and the person she wanted him to meet was Terry Griffiths.

It says much for the 1979 world champion that he granted the request of the stranger who had arrived in Carmarthen and forged a link between himself and the young man who could follow in his footsteps in the next three weeks. The Embassy World Championship begins on Saturday and Matthew Stevens is among the favourites.

Matthew Stevens? Those who drop in on snooker only for the 17-day marathon at The Crucible could be forgiven for not being entirely familiar with the 22-year-old. He has reached the World Championship twice, reaching the quarter-finals each time, but whereas he has previously travelled to Sheffield in hope there is expectation this time. There are many young players chasing Stephen Hendry and he is at their fore.

Two years ago he was 23rd in the world rankings - at present he is ninth - but the momentum is continuing and he is guaranteed a place in the top eight next season. That would have been even higher if the two tournaments he has won this season had been ranking events, but with first prizes of £61,000 for the Regal Masters and £165,000 for the Benson and Hedges Masters he has been richly compensated.

"There have been some really good players who have come on to the scene in the last few years," Peter Ebdon, runner-up at The Crucible four years ago, said. "But Matthew stands out. I believe he can be world champion this time."

If he is it will be the culmination of a trip that began 15 years ago when his parents bought him a three-foot table as, in the words of his father, Morrell, "a stocking filler". It is safe to say it was a Christmas present whose interest survived the initial wonder of the paper coming off.

"He's not put a cue down since," Morrell Stevens said. "He's never had a coach. It's all self-taught from watching the television and studying videos, and why should we change things when it's going so well? Find me a coach who can play better than Matthew then we might start."

Stevens obviously studied thoroughly because he joined Griffiths' club in nearby Llanelli and at the age of 11 scored his first century break. "I used to play with him," his father reflected, "but I gave up when he had to give me a hundred start. It was a bit demoralising."

Stevens, himself, can remember an instant affinity for the game. "I couldn't leave the table alone," he said. "I was lucky, I could see the angles straight away and it was the only talent I had because I wasn't very good at anything else. I wasn't a bad footballer, I played for the local town, but I could see other players better than me so I decided to stick to snooker.

"My earliest memory of the professional game was when Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis in 1985. I was seven years old but I was allowed to stay up to watch it. To be playing with these players and at the same place is unbelievable."

If that marks out Stevens as a star-struck and excitable kid it would be wrong. He is one of the quieter players in the top 16, a young man not likely to be distracted by the trappings. "He's got a very old head on young shoulders," Morrell Stevens said. "He's always been like that, probably because he started snooker so long ago and has mixed with people older than himself almost all his life. Maybe he missed a bit of his childhood but he's grown up quick. Because he's so focused he behaves himself. He doesn't want to end like a lot of people who have the talent but who don't use it. There's a lot of those about and in every profession, not just snooker. He likes a night out with the boys and the odd drink but it doesn't get in the way. He knows what he wants: world No 1, world champion."

To be the latter Stevens has to adjust to the debilitating schedule at The Crucible which places an emphasis on stamina. When Ebdon reached the final in 1996 he found he was too tired to confront Hendry properly, but the other side of the coin is the chance to impose yourself properly in longer-format matches.

Short, first to five contests throw up surprise results, with the extended haul a truer test, and Stevens has reached the final of the other slog, the UK Championships, twice in the last two years. "Every snooker player likes the longer matches," he said. "Other tournaments can be a lottery, you lose two or three frames and you're under real pressure. At The Crucible, over 25 frames [for the second round and quarter-finals], you have time to recover.

"There are so many good players out there and at the World Championships you have to play at the top of your game for a fortnight because one bad session and you're out of the tournament. You have to keep concentrating, get some luck and hope you find your best game."

He will need it as his first opponent is Tony Drago, a mercurial talent who blows hot sufficiently often to be a danger to anyone. After that the name of Hendry looms as a probable quarter-final opponent.

"Stephen was my hero when I was younger and he still is," Stevens said. And with due deference, he beat the seven-times world champion in the Regal Scottish Championships in Aberdeen last week. However, Hendry at The Crucible is different to Hendry anywhere else, but Stevens does have the strength to test him. "This year I think I've emerged in my own right," he said. "In the last couple of years I was referred to as an up-and-coming player but now I am beginning to feel established."

It is this change of attitude, this feeling of acceptance, that makes Morrell Stevens believe the time could be right. "He has entered every tournament since he was 16 believing he would win it, but he has got more chance this year than ever before," he said. "He's got the ability, the all-round game and all he needs now is a bit of luck."

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