Spectre of Hendry raises the stakes

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Stephen Hendry's sudden loss of form - he has barely won a match in 1996 - is worrying for the world champion, but excellent news for bookmakers since snooker is suddenly an attractive betting medium again.

Snooker was a particular favourite among shrewder punters in the late 1980s. The draw is made in advance and the best players generally maintain their form with unusual reliability. In recent years, though, and in major tournaments especially, it has been all but impossible to oppose Hendry.

Few practitioners of any sport have dominated their game like Hendry. Each season, two or three fluffy-cheeked adolescents emerge with great promise from the snooker hall which has been their home since five years of age, and Hendry's authority at last seems to be under serious threat.

But to date, every challenge has been comfortably resisted. It was significant, then, to find the Tote offering 5-2 about his chance when betting opened for the Benson and Hedges Masters, which started at Wembley yesterday.

It is a Hendry trademark that occasional setbacks do not seem to jar his confidence even slightly. The Masters will provide a serious test, however. Hendry's first match tomorrow is against John Higgins, generally the tournament second-favourite, while the same half of the draw also includes Alan McManus, Jimmy White and the promising "floater", Matthew Stevens.

The top half is far softer, and it is hard to see beyond Ronnie O'Sullivan or Peter Ebdon as its finalist. Ebdon, who was unlucky to meet the eventual winner, Mark Williams, in last week's Welsh Open, stands out as the best bet, at the 9-1 offered by Coral.

BENSON AND HEDGES MASTERS (Wembley) Coral (betting before yesterday's matches): 7-4 Hendry, 6-1 Parrott, 7-1 Higgins, 8-1 O'Sullivan, 9-1 Ebdon, 14-1 McManus, Davis, 16-1 White, 18-1 Doherty, 22-1 Wattana, 28-1 Morgan, Harold, 33-1 bar.