White the whirlwind running out of puff

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The Independent Online
It was not difficult to envisage the passing of an era. The nation, or the snooker-watching part of it, has suffered with Jimmy White for so long that each April he is as much a part of the furniture as Dad's favourite chair.

Old ladies see him as the loveable rascal, happy to overlook his indiscretions, boys of all ages empathise with a man whose free spirit refuses to be reined by conformity. Even his hair job, to hide a rapidly widening bald patch, was seen a welcome hint of vanity from someone whose appearance frequently reminded one of the face you see in the mirror the morning after the night before.

Jimmy, in snooker terms, means only one person: "the Whirlwind", whose failure to clinch the Embassy World Championship from six finals has made him the most popular player in the land. The country admires Stephen Hendry and Steve Davies; it adores White.

But maybe for not much longer. White, 34, went out of the World Championship just before midnight on Wednesday and into the limbo land known as outside the world's top 16. Next season his progress will be through a minefield of extra qualification matches. Young players will be waiting to take pots at an erstwhile hero.

The words after his 10-9 defeat were familiar. "The reason I took up snooker was Jimmy," Anthony Hamilton, his conqueror, said. "I think I'd rather have beaten anyone but him." Almost everyone adheres to this ritual, except the sentiments, although genuinely felt, are coming more often these days. And earlier in tournaments.

White lost his first 11 matches this season and his earnings for 1996- 97 are little more than pounds 60,000, which represents a fortune for most but a severe decline of income for someone who has picked up pounds 3.3m in his career. "He'll come straight back," Hamilton insisted. "He's different class."

Others are not so sure. White had been 5-1 and 8-4 in front against Hamilton and although he has been buried by an avalanche of lost frames before - most notably when he lost 10 in a row against Hendry in the 1992 world final - he has not surrendered such an advantage very often at the Crucible.

Certainly not as slowly. The last few frames were played at a ponderous pace, each shot weighed down with tension. Thirty-eight minutes for the 16th frame, 30 for the next, 44 and 28 for the final two.

In times gone by, White has rattled off four frames in the time it was taking to complete one. The last was a particular agony, an amalgamation of missed pots and snookers. White was 37-1 up at one stage but succumbed to a break of 54.

"I'm shocked," he said. "My form in practice could not have been better leading up to the championships and although I knew how good Anthony was I felt I had enough ammunition to see him off.

"I still love the game so there won't be panic stations. I'll have to cut my holidays short this year to get in some practice. I'll be back. I've had so much support from my fans over the years I owe it to them."

James Wattana, the 12th seed, had enough ammunition but was scraping around for shells before beating Graeme Dott in another final frame match. Ahead 6-2, the Thai lost all semblance of rhythm and one point trailed 8-7. "I got angry with myself for letting him off the hook," he said. "He played better than me but I was the lucky one."

Never more so than in the deciding frame when Dott, a 19-year-old Scot, potted a long red only for a double kiss to halt his progress. The white was nestling on a red in such a manner that neither the black or the pink were visible. Snookered, Dott lost his chance and Wattana sneaked through.

Results, Digest, page 29