Snooker: White quickly gathers pace

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THE NATION'S love affair began officially at 10am yesterday. You know the one, the moment normally staid and otherwise rock-solid-sane grandmothers gaze at the television and go "aaah". The moment the Embassy World Snooker Championship begins here.

Of course it started on Saturday, but for the romantics - and snooker's audience seems to comprise more of these sorts the longer the sport occupies the public's attention - the true moment came when the compere Alan Hughes announced "the Whirlwind of London town". The curtains parted and Britain's adopted son for (we hope) 17 days arrived, a half smile across his lived- in features.

Why it is Jimmy White commands such affection is a mystery, because those same septuagenarians who smile so benevolently on him would have a fit as blue as their rinse if their grand-daughter announced she was dating him but, from afar, he is the rogue we have taken to our hearts.

Maybe it is because he has reached the final at the Crucible six times and failed to land the big prize or maybe it is because of his scant regard for convention. Either way, the British public want him to win the world championship almost as much as they would hate having the hotel room next to his. "I have put a curse on him," a relative who had that misfortune once told me.

Certainly there were few White-haters in the Crucible yesterday as he took on the world No 8, Alan McManus. Pushing 38, the Whirlwind no longer has the pencil-thin features that had him likened to the Artful Dodger but if he has slowed it is only from the impossibly quick to breakneck. He plays at the speed he lives his life.

Mornings are not supposed to suit White who, legend would have it, is normally arriving home at 10am instead of clocking in at the office and the sight of his car hurriedly parked on the pavement outside did not speak volumes for his preparation. But the hangover pallor was deceptive and after surrendering the first frame he went 3-1 up and led 5-4 at the end of the first session.

"I have no doubt in my mind I'll win this year," he said before yesterday's match. "I am more determined than ever, believe me. I'll know I'll be a bitter man if I don't."

His shot selection was brave, his acknowledgement of risk negligible but what would you expect with White? The day he starts to play the percentages is the day a national institution comes to an end.

If White is a relic of an earlier age then Steve Davis, at 41, is a snooker dinosaur. His great days were in the 1980s when most of his current rivals were in nappies but that does not mean defeats no longer leave a mark. Yesterday's did, a deep one.

Trailing 7-2 overnight to Joe Perry, the six-times world champion recalled his vintage years with some exhilarating and brave long pots and at 9- 9 and 52-0 in his favour a great comeback seemed imminent. Instead he missed a cutback into the centre pocket with the blue and had to endure his opponent making a 55 clearance to win the match.

The fact Perry fluked the last red, which needed a kindly deflection off the pink to go in, only made matters worse for Davis, who had entered the tournament having cured a potting fault and was quietly confident of doing well.

"That's the best I've played and felt at the Crucible in 10 years," he said his glazed eyes betraying his disappointment. "I've worked out what I was doing wrong about a month ago and I'm playing really well. Next season I'll be stronger."

It could have been White talking.

Another six-times champion, Stephen Hendry, also looked to be needing a speech on "I'll be back" lines when he trailed 8-7 to Paul Hunter.

He reined in his wayward potting, however, and won three frames in succession to scrape through to the next round.

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS (Sheffield) Today's order of play: Afternoon session(14.00): S Lee (Eng) v J Lardner. Evening session (19.00): R O'Sullivan (Eng) v L Fernandez (Rep Irl). Other matches tbc.

Results, Digest, page 27