High noon for master and pupil

Old world champion faces a young admirer at Wembley today. Andrew Baker reports on a baize of glory
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TEN o'clock on a cold grey morning in Llanelli: Terry Griffiths was making a pot. "Seven, eight, nine, ten," he murmured, adding another stack of pounds 1 coins to the gleaming ranks on the bar. The previous evening had been a busy one in the Terry Griffiths Matchroom Snooker Club, known to all in the town as "Terry's", and the proprietor was seeing to the takings. "Nice and full last night," he announced. "The way we like it."

Griffiths has been synonymous with snooker in Wales since the night in 1979 when he won the world championship at his first attempt. The following year he won the Masters, and for the next dozen years he was consistently successful at the highest level in the game, wearing opponents down with his painstaking play and earning instant recognition on the streets of the Principality with a series of increasingly ambitious hairstyles.

Recently, though, the consistency has left his game, and he has adopted a lower-key image, sporting spectacles at the table. And a new challenger has emerged from just up the road in Carmarthen, ready to step into the smart black loafers of Wales's Mr Snooker.

Today, in the first round of the Benson and Hedges Masters tournament at the Wembley Conference Centre in north London, 18-year-old Matthew Stevens is Griffiths's opponent: the learner meets the legend.

"Matthew is one of the best young players around," Griffiths said, sitting back in his private practice room at the club and lighting a cigarette. "Every year he is getting better and better, and that is the important thing. It doesn't matter how much you improve over 12 months, as long as you improve. With me," he laughed blackly, "it's going the other way. I'm going backwards."

Griffiths can't pin his decline on any one aspect of his game. "I still have my days," he said. "But one day is not enough to win a major tournament. The farther you go in any competition, the harder your matches become. I don't know what it is - I suppose I'm just getting a little bit long in the tooth for it all."

Time creeps on. But if Griffiths, who will be 50 in October, is a little craggier than he was in his heyday, he retains his honesty and good humour, and is indignant that some people have mistaken his open acknowledgement of fading powers for a retirement announcement. "I'm not quite finished yet," he said, torching another cigarette. "I'll just see how the results go this year."

Stevens, who had popped in to the club for a little practice, as he often does, feels that his boyhood idol should give it a few more years. "It would be a shame to see him go," he said, sipping a milky coffee at the bar. "He's still at the top, and I don't think he should stop - but I suppose a lot depends on how he gets on in the big championships this year."

The problem for Griffiths, one suspects, is motivation. "I don't get the same excitement out of it all as I did when I was starting out," he admitted. "I've been to so many places now, and it's not like it was when I was new and fresh." He glanced across the room at Stevens, prompting a question about what he had been up to at the age of 18. He thought for a moment, then grinned at the recollection. "I was a bus conductor," he said, "and I was just about to become a postman." And playing snooker? "Every moment that I could. I used to play in a club here in Llanelli called Hatcher's. Just a straight room, mind, with seven tables - but it was everything to me. They had a job to get me out of there."

He gazed around the walls of his practice room, decorated with photographs and even porcelain trays of himself in his bouffanted pomp. "Clubs have come along since those days," he reflected. "Bars, facilities..." He might have added "player proprietors".

But for all the necessary promotional portraiture at the club, Griffiths is the embodiment of the local-boy-made-good cliche: he really hasn't lost touch with his roots. "You going up to Terry's?" people in Llanelli said when asked for directions. "He's done well. Fair do's."

It seems likely that Griffiths will gradually become part of the background of snooker as his playing career fades: he is already a board member of the WPBSA, the sport's governing body, and speaks keenly of the coaching schemes he is fostering.

Stevens will make a worthy successor: while he is shooting up the rankings he remains a keen club player, travelling hundreds of miles back from major tournaments to play in league games with a handicap of 40 or 50 points.

Today's match is the first time that the two have faced each other in competition, but not the first time that they have met across a snooker table. "That was when I was nine years old," Stevens recalled. "Terry was absolutely my biggest hero, and he had somehow heard that I was a decent young player. He came down to my house one day and we played a few shots on my little six-foot table. I was just thrilled." The stakes will be higher when the two players break off at noon today.