Snooker: Wattana fluffs his chance

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THE FIRST semi-final of the 20th Benson and Hedges Masters was a re-run of the final of the 19th when Stephen Hendry, the world No 1, met and beat James Wattana, the current No 5. Hendry's 6-2 victory was his 23rd on the Wembley Masters trot, and brings his winnings from the tournament to half a million pounds. He now faces his fellow Scot Alan McManus, 6-4 winner over Neal Foulds, in today's final.

Both of yesterday's semi-finals were long on mistakes and short on fireworks, with all four contenders seemingly constricted by the weight of the occasion. The evening confrontation featured McManus, snooker's Next Big Thing, and Foulds, who, at 30, is almost a grand old man of the sport now that some of them get a world ranking before they need a razor. Having slipped down to number 33 in the pot parade, Foulds's only hope of qualifying to play in next year's Masters was to come back as defending champion and the pressure showed as he let McManus steal into a 4-1 lead. Foulds's courageous plodding brought him the next three frames to take him level. This parity was shortlived, however, as McManus won the next two frames to claim his meeting with Hendry.

In the first semi-final Hendry, never at his most inspiring for some reason against Wattana, was distracted as early as the first frame by problems with his cue when he played a deep screw, frayed the tip, and had to subject it to emergency surgery. Meanwhile, Wattana, who had had the crowd buzzing all week, notably while beating Peter Ebdon on Thursday, was strangely muted. He is said not to show at his best against the 25-year-old world champion, wanting to win so badly that he misses his shots and goes into his shell. 'He went for a dodgy red with his extension and put me 4-1 up,' Hendry said afterwards. 'I think at times his shot selection is maybe not what it should be.'

The first two frames went to Hendry and were memorable mainly for the piece of airborne fluff that bedevilled him and which he attacked using his cue as a baton. He won gales of laughter from an audience not used to mirth as a feature of modern snooker, particularly when players as self-contained as these two meet.

Wattana capitalised on two foul shots by Hendry to take the third frame, but by the fourth the Scot had found some sort of stride and went off at a gallop after Wattana had impetuously opted for a tricky red and failed. Hendry built up a break of 75, Wattana came to the table, potted a red, missed the black and indicated that it was pointless taking the frame any further.

Frame five began with a

lorry-load of mistakes from both men; Hendry, visibly exasperated with himself, was reduced to standing by the table muttering, one finger in his ear, before going off to sit it out in the wallflower's chair while Wattana potted himself back to 4-2 with a very nice 80 break.

For him, that was as good as the afternoon was going to get because at last Hendry started to get things right, and Wattana was reduced to those impassive- seeming sips of water as Hendry took the penultimate frame 67- 1 and the final frame with a break of 99. Even then, though, he could have done it better - a mistake with a red cost him a possible 134, and pounds 10,000 for the tournament's highest break.

Manfully, Hendry flung a black leather jacket over his monkey suit and was ready to face the press. 'It was a struggle,' he said. 'It got a bit scrappy. There wasn't much good snooker today but it's important to win matches even when you're not knocking centuries in.'

And today, at least, he gets another chance to knock in some of those in the final.

(Photograph omitted)