Stevens takes control in battle of wills

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The Independent Online

Matthew Stevens has never won a ranking tournament but he is bearing down on the biggest of them all. After the first day of the Embassy World Championship final he leads 10-6 and requires eight of the 19 frames today to take the title and the £240,000 first prize.

If he gets them a domino-fall of records will head the 22-year-old's way: first Welsh champion since Terry Grifffiths in 1979; the youngest winner since Stephen Hendry in 1990; the first person to break his ranking tournament duck with the world championship since Joe Johnson in 1986. You could say it would be a notable triumph.

The key to his lead was last night's session. Level going into it, Stevens calmly won the evening tactical skirmishes, forcing Williams into over-boldness with his pots and then clearing up after the damage had been done. At one point yesterday he trailed 4-3, but six frames in succession radically altered the perspective.

"He won a few frames on the trot," Williams said as he contemplated that landscape. "Now I have to stick in there. I feel drained, out of my head but I'm trying to do the best I can. If I feel the same tomorrow I haven't much of a chance."

Those words echoed what had happened to Williams 12 months ago. Every world final has an unknown element about it as players have got to the ultimate round and found 17 days of practice, play and intense concentration have drained them, and he wearily crumbled to Stephen Hendry on the last day last year after playing with casual brilliance until it really mattered.

Last night he revisited that tiredness that contorts angles and pushes players towards over-risky shots in pursuit of a quick kill.

On the face of it, Stevens should have been the fresher as his 17-12 semi-final win over Joe Swail had finished on Saturday afternoon, whereas it was late that night when Williams finally overhauled John Higgins, 17-15.

Stevens was drawing succour, too, from living up to expectation that had piled high on him once Hendry and Ronnie O'Sullivan were stripped from his side of the draw. In terms of rank he should have got to the final, but there were still some good players barring his way. "I feel on a high I'm so glad to get through," he said. "The pressure seems to have come off."

The case for Stevens also would have pointed to his 25-year-old opponent's pressures. He approached yesterday as the best player in the world but he was still without the title to prove it. Indeed, if he fails to wins this evening he will become the first person to assume No 1 status without a world championship to underline it.

Coming back from 15-11 to beat Higgins guaranteed an adrenalin rush but at what cost?" Williams was favourite thanks to his crushing consistency this season but he was aware that Stevens would be a difficult opponent. "Stephen Hendry proved the in first round that even 1/14 shots can be beaten," he said.

His circumspection seemed fully justified in opening exchanges that revealed Stevens as the perkier. The 22-year-old ninth seed potted the first ball of the 2000 final, cutting a red into the centre pocket, and when Williams went in-off in a vain attempt to locate safety, he wrapped up the frame with two visits to the table worth eight and 17.

Williams, still searching for his angles, found danger when he was looking for refuge in the next frame too and Stevens wrapped it up with a 77. By the mid-interval break it was 3-1 courtesy of a 103 in the younger man's favour and the momentum appeared to be with him.

Until this point virtually nothing had been seen of the smooth potting that had swept Williams past Higgins but he is too good to be permanently detached from such fluency and suddenly it arrived like a train from out of a thick fog. A 57 made the score 3-3 and when he followed that up with his highest break of the tournament, 123.

Was Williams recalling the form that had earned him six frames in succession the night before? Instead it was Stevens who powered ahead, winning the final frame of the afternoon 75-35 and then turning the screw early in the evening with a further five frames in a row that included a 111 and a 114.

Williams was slumped in his chair while this carnage was played out before him and at 9-4 down he was in serious trouble. It said much for his will and his talent that he took two of the last three frames with breaks of 59 and 63. Nevertheless he faces an enormous task today.

"I'm pleased to be 10-6 up," Stevens said. "I didn't set myself a target before the start of the match, I have just been taking each frame at a time. It's what I plan to do tomorrow."


Semi-finals (best of 33):

M Williams (Wal) bt J Higgins (Sco) 17-15. Frame scores (Higgins first): 1-92 (87) 71-47 (66) 9-78 (78) 103-0 (62) 102-0 (52, 50) 4-70 (69) 69-34 0-110 (105) 41-77 2-65 70-15 7-60 (60) 0-78 (78) 78-12 (73) 84-37 69-7 98-36 (74) 69-0 79-23 (60) 104-31 (62) 93-0 (93) 14-74 (72) 1-96 (82) 137-0 (137) 48-70 (70) 75-4 (75) 24-74 (68) 1-56 21-81 62-63 (Higgins 55) 7-79 (54) 47=66;

M Stevens (Wal) bt J Swail (N Irl) 17-12. Frame scores (Stevens first): 57-74 114-9 82-21 143-0 28-73 78-29 5-107 6-73 41-67 78-14 110-0 101-9 75-2 71-53 94-0 32-71 71-10 73-0 0-79 33-65 13-102 62-8 12-118 40-70 44-70 67-0 64-34 59-1 64-8.

Final: Stevens leads Williams 10-6. Frame scores (Stevens first): 62-50 84-28 33-56 103-23 18-65 61-76 0-123 75-35 64-24 91-37 59-21 117-0 114-7 6-79 73-22 0-68.