Snooker: Davis finds the key to cult status: Sheffield awaits the six-times world champion. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
THE British are nothing if not perverse. Become a great champion and they desire to see you beaten; endure a prolonged spell of adversity and they embrace every triumph. So it is that a Steve Davis victory in the Embassy World Snooker Championship, which begins tomorrow in Sheffield, would be greeted not with a yawn but delight.

For years, Davis was the epitome of much that this nation distrusts. Not only was he successful, but he appeared to work hard to achieve that success. In an American, that would have been hugely admired but, coming from the home-grown, he was acclaimed by having the sarcastic addition 'Interesting' inserted in the middle of his name. To err is human, and Davis hardly ever made a mistake.

Popular imagination had it that Alex Higgins rolled out of the local bar and bewitched the balls into their pockets, his years of hard labour on the practice table forgotten. Davis, meanwhile, was supposed to have problems extending his vision beyond the end of his cue. A likeable man who did not deserve his reputation, his name became a byword, not for excellence, but for dull predictability.

Which makes his arrival at The Crucible as a popular figure more contrary. The public has warmed to him because the robot lost its program. He won his sixth world title in 1989 and then exposed frailties that hitherto seemed to belong to others. Davis still won the occasional tournament but did not dominate as he had done in the Eighties. He had lost his air of impregnability. His 'boring' mantle had moved on to Stephen Hendry.

Indeed, Davis's insistent theme that he believed he could win a seventh time in Sheffield seemed like the bleatings of a man trying to convince himself rather than others. Until two months ago. Since then, he has won three tournaments, the European and British Opens and the Irish Masters, and he would have taken a fourth if he had not been beaten by Hendry in the final of the International Open in Plymouth on Sunday.

Despite that reverse, Davis remains upbeat. 'Last year I won two tournaments, but I was scrambling to victory in some matches,' he said. 'I'm playing a lot better this season. I'm cueing better than I've done for years.'

Which, until the weekend, was the exact opposite of how you would have described Hendry. The Scot had been heading for a wretched season until his win in Plymouth, the result, he said, of a 'bad attitude'. He had not won a tournament for nearly a year since he took 10 frames in a row to defeat Jimmy White in the World Championship final.

In Plymouth, however, he recorded a century break in every match, recording 10 in all to break the record of eight that Davis and John Parrott had held for a tournament. 'I'm not bothered about that,' he said. 'It's an achievement but the main thing is that every technical aspect of my game is spot on.'

Five players have won ranking tournaments this season (Davis, Hendry, White, Parrott and Ken Doherty) which reflects the lack of a dominant force in the game. That demands the question whether this will be White's chance to discard the label 'the finest player never to be world champion'.

A person with the normal neuroses would probably have taken last year's final defeat from a 14-8 lead as a sign that he would never succeed. Instead White won the first ranking tournament of the 1992/93 season and has since taken the UK Championship for the first time.

White has the ability that others crave - but does he have the mental resolve and stamina to keep potting where others would opt for caution?

The same question is also asked of James Wattana. Even the most diplomatic would describe his record in the World Championships as disappointing. Only once has he got to The Crucible, last year, and then he lost in the second round, albeit to Hendry. At 23 he has time on his side but, a decade ago, a year before he reached his first world final, they said the same about Jimmy White.