JIMMY WHITE'S quest for the World Snooker Championship, a trial of patience worthy of a saint he would never claim to be, will be extended for another year after Stephen Hendry beat him 18-17 in the final last night.
It was the sixth time White has been beaten in the final and none will have hurt as much as this. Having fought back from 16-14 and 17-16 down, he had the title almost within his grasp when he was in among the balls and was 37-24 up. At the crucial moment his nerves intruded on his cueing arm and he missed a black off the spot.
Hendry, his mask of calm totally unmoved, serenely compiled a break of 58 to take the final frame 82-37 and become the first player after Steve Davis to win the title three years in succession at The Crucible. He now has four world championships to his name and he is within two of Davis's tally, a target he uses as motivation. To win while handicapped with a broken bone in his left arm, an injury sustained before his second-round match, was a marvellous achievement.
For White, on his 32nd birthday, it was a case of another year, another wretched disappointment. The defeat means he has lost the last five world finals. Hendry has beaten him in his four victorious finals. 'He's beginning to annoy me,' White said with masterly understatement immediately afterwards.
It was a day of deep frustration for White, who began it 9-7 ahead but who was checked in the early frames by mistakes. He got better as the match reached its conclusion but by then he was just too late. The tag 'the best player never to be world champion' still haunts him.
There were enough doubts about both players as they entered the final hurdle to make predicting the outcome a lottery. Hendry was handicapped with a hairline fracture below his left elbow that made any shot near a cushion and bridging over balls difficult, not to say agony.
Against that White has hardly been tearing up trees. It is 18 months since he last won a ranking tournament, the UK Championship of 1992, and this season he had not even reached a final prior to this match.
He began yesterday's second day of the decider with a two-frame lead but its flimsiness was made immediately apparent by Hendry's start.
The first frame was a nervy collection of errors from both men that lasted 20 minutes and contained no breaks on any consequence. Hendry won it, staggering rather than swaggering over the line.
The next frame was a more authentic demonstration from the reigning champion, who compiled a break of 89 to level the score at 9-9 and send shivers through White's supporters. The memory of two years ago when Hendry won 10 frames in a row to rescue a seemingly lost position of 14-8 was stirred every time the Scot coupled frames together.
White soothed the nerves with a break of 77, however, and then restored his two-frame advantage by winning the next frame 69-25. If that suggested that White was regaining the smoothness of arm that accrued him six frames in a row in the first day of the final, the impression was misleading. At times he was struggling to string two pots together and he would have been mightily relieved to end the afternoon frames level at 12-12.
The evening session, too, began on a scrappy note, the players swapping miss for miss and dividing the first two frames between them to make it 13-13. Hendry edged in front, the first time he had been ahead since 5-4 the previous day, taking the 27th frame 66-34, and at 16-14 appeared to be heading for a close but relatively comfortable victory.
But White was not finished and he took the next two frames on the black to set up the thrilling climax.
EMBASSY WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP (Sheffield)
Final: S Hendry (Sco) bt J White (Eng) 18-17 (Frame scores: 7-94 64-52 89-0 68-21 93-24 76-0 1-85 68-70 42-85 29-72 15-110 37-84 71-54 59-60 94-27 15-64
71-26 89-0 0-77 25-69 73-4 88-13 53-64 72-34 56-61 68-31 66-34 67-34 0-116 (116 break) 72-39 66-71 66-67 68-0 0-85 82-37).
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