Snooker: Hendry on the brink of the 20th century

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The Independent Online
WHEN STEPHEN HENDRY, seven times world champion, commandingly won the first two tournaments of the season, the Champions' Cup and the British Open, he lamented wryly that "the only way from here is down".

Defeat by John Higgins in the Regal Scottish Masters semi-final and the Essex newcomer Allister Carter in the last 16 of the Grand Prix at Preston duly provided this downturn but also served to restore the edge of his appetite for success.

At 4-4 at the interval of his best of 17 frames Liverpool Victoria UK Championship semi-final here against Mark Williams he was still strongly in contention to equal Steve Davis's record six UK titles.

Breaks of 80 and 120 - already his 19th century of the season in pursuit of his 1994-95 record of 53 - featured in Hendry's progress to 4-1. But he did not score in the next two frames as Williams, finding the form which gave him three world ranking titles last season, responded with frame winners of 77 and 92. The Welsh left hander missed a straight black on 26-0 in the last frame of the afternoon but Hendry immediately missed a pink and, with a break of 72, Williams levelled at 4-4 with a possible nine evening frames to follow.

Matthew Stevens the 22-year-old Welshman who eliminated the defending champion, John Higgins, 9-7 in Friday's semi-final also beat the world No 1 eight weeks ago to win his first major title, the Regal Scottish Masters, a top-class invitation event. Tomorrow's pounds 78,000 first prize would be another milestone.

His fortnight in Bournemouth began with the most precarious of survivals from four down with five to play against Joe Perry. This reprieve released fresh confidence and energy which was still flowing when he outplayed Ronnie O'Sullivan 9-3 in their quarter-final.

Friday's afternoon session - "really terrible" was the verdict of Higgins - illustrated how any departure from the circuit's ordinarily first-rate conditions can affect performance. Overnight, the arena had been re-rigged from two tables to one for the semi-finals and final. But the new cloth was still damp at two o'clock. Immediately, the players realised that the cue ball was less responsive to spin, which affected positional play. Some safeties were affected too and with confidence undermined by factors beyond their control, this spilled over into potting errors as well. It took Higgins two hours 57 minutes to achieve his 5-3 interval lead.

Assisted by the now standard under-table heating, the cloth dried out to permit an evening session of altogether higher quality. Stevens levelled at 6-6 with a black-ball steal, went one up with two to play when Higgins bungled a clearance opportunity and clinched victory without any inhibition whatsoever with a break of 93.

Today's title would give Stevens, the world No 9, wins over three of the top four players in the world rankings in as many matches.