This great championship offers conflict as delightfully engaging as any on the sporting calendar. Yet it must be acknowledged that snooker remains a Cinderella sport, fighting for its share of back-page space, scorned by some as an overblown parlour game, not really a sport at all.
Though rugby, football and international athletics may stink of indecency and worse, they still qualify for serious comment. Fleet Street papers either ignore the Crucible or commission a snide piece questioning snooker's legitimacy. One or two of the hard men have been at it again this year, which is unfortunate for them, as the tournament which began yesterday morning promises to be the most dramatic for years.
Before speculating about the real business, we should deal with the diversion, Alex Higgins's return from oblivion, which will be celebrated when he faces the Dubliner Ken Doherty in the Crucible tomorrow night. This occasion will probably garner more column inches than the rest of the tournament combined. Ironically, Higgins's story serves only to prove that the kind of behaviour commonplace and increasingly acceptable in other sports is neither encouraged nor rewarded in professional snooker. For crimes that would hardly have raised an eyebrow at Twickenham - head-butting and threatening opponents - Higgins was stripped of his ranking points, relegated to snooker's fourth division, the pre-qualifying depths of Blackpool, from whence, remarkably, he has surfaced to fight at the Crucible one more time.
Cunning and desperate, Higgins cut a compelling figure at Blackpool. Tomorrow night he is likely to look as sad as one of those American heavyweights they import to fight Frank Bruno. It will be truly sensational if he disturbs Doherty, one of a number of exciting young players capable of winning this year.
Higgins represents snooker's past, the low-life origins that may explain why the sport does not yet feature in the Olympic Games. Contemplating Higgins, or his friend Jimmy White, we can also dispense with the notion that real men don't play this beautiful game. They do, but the divine truth of snooker is that its values - courtesy, sportsmanship, a conviction that winning within the rules is more important than winning - endure. And even the wildest of men, the most tormented of spirits, is inclined to conform to snooker's civilising atmosphere.
It is no accident that snooker has provided two of the great champions of our time. Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry are both as champions ought to be: gifted, dignified, intelligent ambassadors not just for their sport but for the general proposition that a life spent in hardy competition, where rules are obeyed and the weasel ways of the real world held at bay, is, spiritually, a good thing. Davis is not Will Carling, Hendry bears no resemblance to Linford Christie. The snooker champions are not brash or sour, nor are they the glib, paranoid characters who blur the distinction between glorious sport and wretched life.
Thus, for the next fortnight, the Crucible will be a sanctuary, sport as it should be, the decent pursuit of excellence at the end of which a real hero will emerge.
Who that will be is a matter of real intrigue. Hendry is the favourite, the reigning champion, winner of three Crucible titles in the last four years. When he is at his best, Hendry is awesome. Mentally tough, possessing the fathomless emotional resources demanded by a game where the difference between success and failure is measured in millimetres, Hendry, concentrated and fluent, defies belief. Two years ago he looked doomed against Jimmy White when trailing 14-8 in the first-to-18 final. Towards the end of the afternoon session, when White's long wait for a Crucible title seemed finally over, Hendry stole a couple of frames to begin one of the most extraordinary comebacks in sporting history. White didn't win another frame. Like the rest of us, Jimmy sat transfixed, a witness to a display of sustained brilliance in which talent, concentration and nerve were seamlessly woven together in an essay of sporting perfection. Hendry won 10 consecutive frames to take the title 18-14. Jimmy White has never recovered, losing last year's rematch 18-5.
Hendry has had a moderate season by his own immaculate standards. He is favourite because of a relatively easy draw, and is almost certain of a place in the semi-final. Hendry at his most formidable has access to reserves of talent and concentration his rivals have yet to prove that they can match. Until it is proved otherwise, as it may be this year, the conviction among aficionados is that the Scot can raise his game at Sheffield, retain his title in the invincible manner of Steve Davis in the Eighties. The doubt about Hendry's pre-eminence concerns his hunger for more glory, whether there still exists, beneath the cool exterior, the savage aggression essential to demolition jobs such as those inflicted on Jimmy White in '92 and '93. If the champion is complacent he will not survive the next two weeks.
Steve Davis is due to face Hendry in the semi-final if both stay free of accidents. This will be a confrontation to savour, two great players coming from different places. Davis has looked like yesterday's man, gracefully resigned to a supporting role. This season Davis has regained the No 1 ranking and believes that he can defy the law of sporting gravity which insists that champions don't come back.
The fearless fluency of his great years no longer serves to intimidate the great man's opponents. At 38, Davis is not the god he once appeared to be. When Jimmy White, Hendry or Ronnie O'Sullivan, the sport's newest sensation, are flowing at the table, snooker is rendered magical, impossibly, inaccessibly so. Watching Davis one knows that this is a game of the mind, that magic is not required, rather an abundance of concentration, willpower and emotional resilience.
Grace under pressure, Hemingway's definition of courage, is still the most inspiring of the qualities by which sport distinguishes real heroes. In his competitive middle-age, Davis is the perfect standard- bearer of this devalued sporting currency, and not the least of the Crucible's fascinations this year is the possibility of witnessing his triumph.
The forlorn hope, that Jimmy White will defy all earthly laws to win at last, is, for those of a romantic disposition, the most appealing of all imponderables. Jimmy is not so much a snooker player, more a Cause. Call it rebellion, a love of free spirits, subversion of the adult world, call it, perhaps most accurately, a rather pitiful desire for an anti-hero. Call us pathetic if you care but, for many, Sheffield this year will be like Sheffield every other year; a question of whither Jimmy?
Since 1982, when angel-faced Jimmy lost to Higgins in one of those unforgettable contests the Crucible regularly contrives to create, its mark indelible on mind and soul, the quest for a champion has shamefully been reduced to a single issue: will this be Jimmy's year? As far as this correspondent is concerned, you can forget all the musings above about sport's glorious essences, the redemptive features, all of which are of course commendable but not as inspiring as the prospect of Jimmy White conferring a degree of true romance on the championship by winning it after all the wasted years. He has contested the last three finals, losing twice to Hendry, once to John Parrott.
This morning you can get good odds, 9-1, against Jimmy White becoming the world professional snooker champion. Nobody has ever mastered the game as he has done, nobody has ever induced so much despair among snooker's devotees than this wild, urchin-genius from snooker's low-life past. He has endured a dreadful season and is engulfed by personal problems. Yet, should he survive the worst of the draw, surrounded by dangerous young opponents such as O'Sullivan, Alan McManus and Doherty, as well as the lurking former champion Parrott, to face Hendry or Davis in another final, many would feel that this was the best possible conclusion to this year's spectacle.
Professional snooker's abiding ironies are many, not the least of them being that this great sport remains disregarded by so many. The final irony is, most poignantly, that the most divine exponent of this divine game has yet to be declared the champion. If this is the year, even the other vanquished champions will applaud. But not as loudly as the occupiers of a million sofas across the nation, rising to acclaim a loser-champion, a man after our own dispositions. Jimmy. Real life, no. Real sport, yes.
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