Stevens sails into first final

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The Independent Online

Matthew Stevens, a quarter-finalist here for the last two years, emerged from a mid-match crisis in Sheffield yesterday to beat Joe Swail 17-12 and reach the best-of-35-frames final of the Embassy World Championship.

Victory would give him £240,000 and make him the second youngest champion in the event's 73-year history behind Stephen Hendry, who won the first of his seven titles 10 years ago at the age of 21 years, three months.

The 22-year-old Welshman led 12-6 but Swail, Northern Ireland's first semi-finalist here since Dennis Taylor gloriously won the title 15 years ago, trailed only 13-11 going into yesterday afternoon's final session.

A desperately edgy opening frame reduced this to 13-12 but Stevens, potting the ball consistently but without producing any notable fireworks, controlled the next three to go four up with five to play at 16-12.

This was a mountain the Ulsterman had climbed against John Parrott two rounds earlier, only the fourth time such a recovery had been completed at the Crucible. This time he was unable to prevent an immediate conclusion.

Stevens first held a cue when he was seven; he was nine when Terry Griffiths, the 1979 world champion, at whose Llanelli club he now practises, told his father that there was nothing in his cue action he would wish to change. This natural ability to deliver the cue through perfectly straight gave him his first century at 11 and a string of junior titles. His headmaster in Carmarthen, realising how committed he was, was sympathetic to requests for time off.

His professional ranking has risen each year from the age of 16, from No 636 to No 9 at the start of this season. Next year he will be in the top six, although his two titles, the Regal Scottish Masters and the Benson and Hedges Masters, prestigious as they are, carry no ranking points.

One consolation for Swail was his semi-final loser's prize of £70,000, which will enable him "to pay off my house". Another was his reclaiming of a place in the élite top 16 at the expense of such luminaries as Steve Davis and Jimmy White.

John Higgins, trying to become champion for the second time in three years, won six of the morning's eight frames to establish a 14-10 lead over Mark Williams after three of their four sessions.

Williams, who will be No 1 in the end-of-season rankings, a distinction no player has ever achieved prior to winning a world title, had split Thursday's opening session 4-4 despite uncharacteristically wayward long potting, even if his close-quarters work was unaffected as he fully participated in a riot of scoring in which only one of the eight frames failed to yield a half-century break.

On Friday afternoon, it was the Scot's turn to struggle. Such was his disgust when a simple pink eluded him that he stormed out of the arena at the mid-session interval while still arithmetically able to win the 12th frame.

The normally equable Higgins had similarly given way to frustration as he went 6-2 down at the interval of his Grand Prix final against Williams at Preston in October. Then, he recovered to win 9-8; now, from a deficit which became 8-5, he welded renewed skill to natural tenacity to level at 8-8.

The first five frames yesterday morning enabled him to extend his winning streak to eight. The Welshman did miss a few, but Higgins was in full flight, making breaks of 74, 60, 62 and 93 as he outpointed him 443-90 in this period.

It was easy to recall his 485 unanswered points, a new Crucible record, in beating Anthony Hamilton 13-3 with a session to spare of their quarter-final, a dominant burst which had included consecutive centuries, 136, 103 and 135, a hat-trick performed here only by Higgins himself and Ronnie O'Sullivan.

Just as a runaway threatened, Williams at last caught fire with 72 and, from a fluke, 82 to reduce his arrears to 13-10, but with a total clearance of 137 Higgins earned a four-frame advantage to carry into last evening's final session. It was his 12th century of the championship in pursuit of his own record of 14 two years ago.