Snooker: A match too far in Fu's long march

Clive Everton sees snooker's hottest prospect stumble after 43 successive wins
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IT MAY nowadays be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a qualifier starting at the first round to win the Embassy World Championship.

Alex Higgins was a first-round starter in 1972 and six wins later was champion at his first attempt. So was Terry Griffiths in 1979. But when Hong Kong's outstanding 20-year-old prospect Marco Fu faced Adrian Rosa in the 11th qualifying round at Blackpool on Friday night there were three more best-of-19-frame matches to survive at the Norbreck Castle and another at Telford in late March even to qualify for the 32-man televised phase of the championship at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, starting on 18 April.

Fu had earlier beaten opponents as good or even better, including Mike Hallett 10-2 but, hydra-like, there was always another good player waiting for him next day. Eventually, he succumbed to Rosa, whose world ranking of 119 exempted him to the ninth round, 10-8.

So ended a remarkable 43-match winning streak encompassing the world under-21 and amateur titles and the first Asian tour qualifier in Guangzhau.

Fu started playing snooker in Kowloon when he was nine but at 12 he went to school in Vancouver and developed his game there. He returned to Hong Kong to win the national title at his initial entry and found himself playing for the world amateur championship in temperatures of 110 degrees in Bulawayo.

"There were a lot of high- standard players there but they couldn't play a high standard of snooker because of the conditions," he said. Insects attacked in such numbers on the one occasion windows were opened that play was suspended and botanists could observe at leisure the courtship rituals of flying ants. Several birds, two pigeons, four or five doves and a handful of quileas (a local pest) took up residence in the hall and one competitor nailed four flying ants to the back of a pocket with a pot at speed.

Fu was three down with four to play in the final to Stuart Bingham, one of Steve Davis's regular sparring partners, but pulled off a resolute 11-10 win to the accompaniment of a tropical storm on the corrugated iron roof. Six hours later, he caught a plane to Manchester and was just in time to play his first Embassy qualifier at Stockport.

In his 11 qualifying matches, Fu made 11 centuries, one fewer than Stephen Hendry's world championship record - although the world number one does not, of course, start his championship until the Crucible stages. "I'm not used to such intensive play," Fu said. "I'm surprised I went on winning so long but I learned a lot. I'm looking forward to next season but all the travelling from home to Britain will put me under extra pressure."

He has the talent to make an impact and it would be good for the circuit if he could, for too much British success reduces the game's international appeal. James Wattana's career has lost impetus, as indeed has snooker in Thailand generally in the country's economic slump. Alain Robidoux, who gave Canada a world semi-finalist last May, has not won a match since having his cue broken in the summer. And the gifted 20-year-old Australian Quinten Hann is still too volatile. Top overseas players, it seems, are Fu and far between.