Snooker: Higgins leaves Lee in a daze

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IT IS probably just as well that John Higgins was complaining of tiredness before he got to the Embassy World Snooker Championship because he might have been dangerous if he had been sprightly. As it is those weary limbs are inflicting terrible damage.

The 23-year-old defending champion is so washed out that he managed to whitewash the world No 9, Stephen Lee, 8-0 yesterday and, to paraphrase Alex Ferguson, it is going to take a Devon Loch to stop him now as he requires only five of today's 17 frames to progress to the semi-finals.

Lee, from Trowbridge, is sixth in the provisional rankings for next season, but he might have been a no-hoper with a rank corresponding to this season's earnings of nearly pounds 150,000 for all the impression he made on Higgins. A slip and it was over, and not just for one frame but every time he got to the table.

The breaks were remorseless: 69 in the first, 132 in the second, 51, 82, 56, 91 and 63 to bring a remarkable session to a close. By the time Lee had been picked up off the floor and carried bleeding by his seconds to the dressing-room, the scoring was 763-181 in Higgins' favour. The pain in the neck Lee has complained of since he strained a muscle picking up the phone last month was nothing to the ache inside.

Which was not exactly a surprise, because Higgins also had Mark King contemplating hari-kari with his cue after an 8-0 rout in the previous round. However, quarter-finals are not normally so one-sided and it did make Lee's words, after he had defeated Alan McManus, ring a little hollow.

"This is where you want to start playing well," he said after the 13- 7 victory. "But I think I can win the tournament. John has more to lose than me and I'm not scared of him. I have to raise my game, but in the quarter-finals of the World Championship I feel capable of doing so." Maybe it was not a good idea to rile a man who has not looked the slightest bit fazed by the prospect of becoming the first first-time champion to successfully defend his title at The Crucible.

While Higgins was inflicting his own brand of punishment on table one, it was scarcely less gory in the adjoining match, where Stephen Hendry was 5-0 up at one stage against Matthew Stevens and, perfectionist that he is, probably went to bed grumbling that he only had a 6-2 advantage to take into today.

When Graham Taylor was asked to donate a pearl of wisdom to the next England football manager, he used two words, and not necessarily the ones you would expect. "Don't lose," he replied, and there were echoes after James Wattana had been blitzed off the table by Hendry on Monday night. What advice could he pass on to Stevens? "Just don't miss," the Thai said, and the advice came true in the very first frame of the afternoon.

Stevens was entitled to wear a mask when he arrived at The Crucible because his bandit rank of 26 cloaked a rise in the world to 11th, and the great things that are predicted for the 21-year-old Welshman looked fully justified when he quickly rattled up a 59-0 lead. One mistake, though, and Hendry had pinched the frame with a break of 71.

Four frames were quickly accumulated, and by then the only hint that Hendry had not completed the plumbing to tap into his peak form was that he had not scored a century yet. On cue it arrived, and at one stage Hendry was heading for the tournament's highest break of 144 until he missed a difficult final red and had to settle for 109. Stevens had every reason to feel shell-shocked, but when he finally won a frame he celebrated with a century of his own and at one stage it seemed he might even take Hendry to 5-3. Breaks of 39 and 34 ended that.

Results, Digest, page 25