Profile: An interesting man: Steve Davis: Ian Ridley discovers the former world snooker champion in a more positive frame of mind

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The Independent Online
ELEVEN years ago now, Steve Davis remembers going racing at Cheltenham and watching a horse called Bregawn win the Gold Cup. He recalled: 'It went away from the pack, they hauled him back, then it went away again. I thought: 'This must be some sort of good horse.' '

Davis's if-at-first Robert the Bruce experience has often come back to him in the past few years. In the 1980s, he was one of those rare figures singled out by the history of their game, a sportsperson who dominates their era. Six times he was world champion. Then they hauled him in, the new-kids-on- the-black pack and, as he slipped slowly but seemingly surely down the ranking rungs, it appeared only a matter of time before, humiliated, he metaphorically conceded the frame and retired.

But you can't keep a good horse down and the thorougbred Davis has been the best. Tenaciously, he has worked himself through a technical crisis; though, at 36, mellowed by marriage and fatherhood, he has retained his inner rage for perfection, still fascinated by the game of snooker, and returned to its pinnacle. He goes into the World Championship - what he calls his annual exam - which begins in 'his' arena of the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, next Saturday, provisionally ranked No 1 for the first time in four years, even if seeded only fourth.

'I feel like I am cheating the eras,' he says. 'It gives me an inner glow. I feel like I can hold my head up again. I may have sacrificed a bit of intensity, got a bit more human and feel able to enjoy it more, but I am still single-minded about the game.'

His father Bill first noticed as much at Plumstead Working Men's Club in south-east London where his son never questioned or complained as he was taken

through, page by page, drill by drill, How I Play Snooker by Joe Davis; no relation, save in spirit.

Barry Hearn was next to witness it in March 1975, called from his office at Romford Snooker Centre to watch this kid who had taken two buses out into Essex lighting up his pounds 1,000 tournament, one of few so valuable in those days. 'I could see he was trying his heart out,' Hearn says. Davis went on to lose the final to Geoff Foulds, with whom he then embarked on Hearn's seven-venue nationwide exhibition tour.

'He loved it,' Hearn says. 'He never opened his mouth the whole time. He was a very shy, very nice kid. I remember his jumper was too short for his body.' It was not an instant friendship, adds the

sporting entrepreneur, but soon Hearn became mentor and manager, both realising the good each other could do them.

They were the right men in the right place at the right time. Colour television was devouring what Hearn called 'Coronation Street with balls' and Davis was its Ken Barlow. 'Interesting' became his sobriquet as Spitting Image lampooned him. It just made the boy who lived with his mum and dad - Porsche parked outside - and on Marmite sandwiches more famous. He responded with a book: How To Be Really Interesting.

As the wins piled up - 51 titles in the decade - so did the money for the man who had made just pounds 5,000 in his first season as a professional, 1978. By 1990, it was more than pounds 3m but that was just the cue tip of the iceberg. He travelled in a 30-foot Cadillac to exhibitions, 40 of which over three years cost his sponsor, Courage the brewer, pounds 220,000.

With the Matchroom team, in which Davis was the star - Hearn called him 'The Nugget' while the other, slightly envious, members nicknamed him 'Goldenballs' - Hearn exported the game. In 1987, President Deng Xiaoping ordered state television to cover live China's first 'si-nu-oke' tournament so that he could watch Davis.

'The Romford Robot', meanwhile, began to reveal more of his real, more rounded, self. He bought an ailing soul music magazine, Voices, from The Shadows. 'Our Love Is In The Pocket', as the Detroit artiste Darryll Banks sang.

Inevitably, in retrospect, snooker's gravy train - which hit top speed with the 18.5 million viewers who watched the epic 1985 world final that Dennis Taylor won over Davis on the last black - was shunted into television's sidings with the changing of tastes and emergence of new sports, even if it didn't quite hit the buffers. It was probably symbolic that Davis himself was pushed from his pedestal by Stephen Hendry at the turn of the decade.

Over the past four years, Davis has never been below fourth in the world and has still won 18 tournaments in that time, but his decline was so marked because of the height from which he fell. 'Standards just got better and more than any other player from the Eighties I had to accept that it was going to be harder. I was like a spoiled kid who had had it all my own way,' he says. A heavy first-round defeat at Sheffield to Peter Ebdon was shocking but illustrative.

It apparently became a problem of technique; according to experts, Davis was not delivering his cue flush through the cue ball but across it, and instead of meeting the object ball at the intended point, was inadvertently putting side spin on it. Thus was he often overcutting the ball to his left, undercutting it to his right.

'There were plenty of depressing endings,' he admits. 'I just wasn't playing with the same authority but with the sort of standard that wasn't really threatening anything. It was draining, confidence-sapping.' He recalls a tournament in Ireland. 'I made a fool of myself, failed to hit what I was aiming at three times and was disqualified,' he said. There was, too, talk of a rift with Hearn, more interested now in boxing promotion, and disputes over money.

His mind also had other matters and people to occupy, and console, him. He married Judy, a former Concorde stewardess, and they now have two sons, Greg, aged 21/2 , and Jack, six months. With all his assets, such as a forest in Scotland and a castle in Essex - 'it's actually a farmhouse with a few Lego blocks round it' - one might have thought he could be tempted to go quietly towards domesticity and retirement.

'Wasn't a consideration,' he says. 'When you are in sport you are tied into it, as you can see from boxers past their prime and golfers going into the senior tour. It takes a strange person to give up. It's a much more natural process to try and fight. I don't think it's a clever thing to retire at the top. I'm sure Bjorn Borg regrets it. I think it's best to go out screaming.'

Typically, he relished the work involved in rehabilitating his game. 'It is a more technical sport than people give credit for and not as mental,' he says. 'Like golf, snooker can be done robotically without your mind on the job. You don't have to have the perfect outlook if you've got the perfect technique.'

Previously, he had practised alone; now he took on players such as Hearn's only other male clients left, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Ken Doherty, Feargal O'Brien and Mark King. 'I felt the need to be more competitive in practice,' he says. 'I didn't want to be frightened of any players. I wanted to play a cross- section of the new players to feel I was more like them and I took the risk of them learning from me.'

Was equalling Ray Reardon's modern record of seven world titles a spur? 'No, who cares? Winning is just a by-product of doing what you do well. Once you have won, it's history. The euphoria lasts just for a moment. Much more lasting and enjoyable is the self-fulfilment. In that respect, you can take the pressure off yourself.' It was a win, though, that confirmed and convinced him he was back for real; over Alan McManus in the Welsh Open recently.

Davis now is a man at peace with himself and his image. A sense of humour that has developed down the years - as the boring tag followed the loss of the invincible one - is clearly visible in current television commercials that feature him sending himself up over that 'Interesting' label. More often does a smile appear on that face with the Kirk Douglas dimple grooved by continuous

cueing. He also describes himself as a 'married man with curtains'. He says, though, that maybe the public will only be sure that he is really back when Spitting Image starts to feature him again.

He remains friendly with Hearn - each man is godfather to the other's children - but no longer does he speak to him every day, although he will telephone his result when playing abroad. 'He's so professional, so dedicated, so credible,' says Hearn, who compares him in his craftsmanship with another of his clients, Chris Eubank. 'Promoters always deal in hype, I know, but if this young man doesn't get a knighthood in the name of British sport then there is no justice.'

Now it is often just Davis and dad Bill, back to where they started, travelling together to tournaments in a second-hand Nissan. And he will travel more hopefully this year, the first of the rest of his snooker life, than for several previously. He will not retire, he says, only be sacked by his contemporaries in their rising standards. You sense, though, that it will take some sort of good horse to do that.