Snooker: Anguish fires Doherty to steely resolve in Sheffield

From being a national hero to losing a world title, the mental struggle to come back is a painful one.
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The Independent Online
FOR EVERY winner there is a loser, and one stares bleakly out of BBC Television's promotion for sport on its channels this month. Amid the fists, smiles, and tears of exultation, the camera focuses on eyes confronting the other impostor. As Barry Davies once said in commentary: "Just look at his face. Just look at his face."

Ken Doherty is the spectre at this feast of triumphalism, a man caught as he is being introduced to desperate disappointment. You do not need the context, you need to know nothing about snooker, the expression says everything you need to know: a cherished thing has been taken. The picture is a study of hurt being digested with dignity.

The impression was not false. Every snooker player craves to be world champion, but Doherty gave the impression of relishing it more, and to have his prize wrested from his weary hands by John Higgins last year created a lover's void. A year of living famously was over.

Famously with a capital F. Doherty, a native of Dublin, was swept along by a tide of excitement in his native Ireland when he took the Embassy World Championship in 1997.

The swell was enough to take him and his trophy from Dublin's Lansdowne Road, to Old Trafford, Downing Street and, it seemed at one time, every opening of a supermarket or a bottle in the Emerald Isle.

It had to come to an end - if only for his wellbeing - but the party came to its real halt only when Doherty finished one match short of becoming the first modern champion to retain the title at the first attempt. Cold disappointment came first, then anti-climax, then reality.

"It was really hard giving the trophy back," Doherty, 29, said. "Really hard. Ireland does not have that many world champions, so the adulation for me you wouldn't believe. I enjoyed every minute of it, I'd had such a great year, so it was difficult to come to terms with when it was all over."

Doherty was always likely to experience a dip, and his play at the start of the season was hangover sluggish. Since January he has reached the final of the Masters and the Malta Grand Prix, but his provisional ranking of seventh, three places lower than his seeding at the Crucible which is based on his position at the end of the 1997-98 season, reflects his early struggles.

"There was a reaction," Ian Doyle, his manager, said. "There's always a period after you've lost the world championship where it affects you, and it doesn't matter how many times I tell him `you were world champion, nobody will ever be able to take that away from you'. I think there's an automatic focusing on the Crucible at the end of the season."

As he has not won a tournament for two years, Doherty's prospects do not look particularly good on paper, but they were hardly dripping with promise two years ago, when he arrived in Sheffield with question marks about his commitment and even Doyle describing him as "lazy".

He had been beaten in the first round of the British Open and, before that, had been routed 6-1 by Steve Davis on home soil in the Irish Masters. So it was in an urgent search for form, as much as wishing to prove Doyle wrong, that he spent seven hours a day practising in Ilford in the build- up to the world championship. Seventeen days later he defeated Hendry in the final.

He was fresh in 1997 and he is not mentally battered by too many big matches this time. "I'm really looking forward to it," Doherty said. "It's a confidence boost to go to Sheffield knowing you have been to the final in the last two years, and you can be relaxed about the place and soak up the atmosphere.

"Last year I was aware that no first time champion had gone back to the Crucible again and won it, and possibly it'll be easier this time. John Higgins will feel like I did going in. You like being world champion and the last thing you want is to give that up. There is real pressure on you."

His manager, too, is upbeat, emphasising appearances are deceptive. "Ken's just had his most consistent season on the circuit," Doyle said. "He's not won, but he's made plenty of semi-finals and finals and I'm not altogether sure that he's not very close to his peak. He's slipped quietly into the championship and, when you look at his draw, he's more than capable of regaining the crown. I know he's got the form.

"He's won no titles, but he's not taken anything mentally or physically out of himself. The telling factor for him will be the first round. If he gets moving he tends to get stronger as the championship goes on. I feel confident about his potential."

Last year he was drawing 8-8 with Wales' Lee Walker before prevailing 10-8 in his first round match, and the score was identical against Mark Davis at the same stage in the year he won. Doherty hardly arrives at the Crucible with a clarion call, so Steve James was meeting him possibly at his most vulnerable.

In theory, anyway, because the Irishman had all the weakness of an armour- plated elephant yesterday as he built upon 8-1 lead and requires only two more frames today. "Never any doubt," Doherty said at one point when a red rattled in the jaws before trickling into the pocket. And that could have summed up his play yesterday afternoon. James was 6-0 down before he got his first success of the day and that required a 137 clearance, the second highest break of the tournament at that point.

If Doherty, who is attempting to reach his third final in succession, has had a weakness this year it has been an inability to finish off opponents after making initial breaks. But, although his charge was temporarily halted, he rattled off the next two frames to make the pre-tournament bookies odds against his winning seem generous.

"Steve James' game suits Ken," Doyle said. "When he's lost this season it's been against slow, methodical players who disrupt his rhythm. Ken likes an open game."

Doherty also likes the look of an open field with no obvious favourite, with Higgins burdened by the first-time-winner syndrome and complaining of about the hours of practice, and Hendry tucked far away in the draw, where he can only be met in the final.

"John Higgins is playing the best snooker in the world right now," Doherty said, "but you don't know how you're going to do in Sheffield until you get there. I know where he's coming from when it comes to practice. It's boring, but you have to do it because you know the other guys are doing it, and you have to work hard if you want to reap the rewards. You have to go through the pain barrier, satisfy yourself you're playing well enough and put the cue down until the next time.

"It's not so bad if you're playing with someone, but if you're on your own it can be purgatory. The season is organised so that the six or seven weeks before the world championship tournaments are back to back, which is tiring. It's hard to buckle down."

Doherty has been visiting his own purgatory in Dublin, piling in the practice in the hope that the inspiration of two years ago will pay him a revisit. "I've been there," he said. "I know the pain is worth it."

The pale, pinched features caught on camera 12 months ago were no longer to be seen. Just a quiet confidence and a hopeful smile.