Stevens on course for Crucible glory

Matthew Stevens is in pole position to finally end his Crucible hoodoo after taking command of the opening day of his Embassy World Championship final clash with qualifier Shaun Murphy.

Matthew Stevens is in pole position to finally end his Crucible hoodoo after taking command of the opening day of his Embassy World Championship final clash with qualifier Shaun Murphy.

The Welshman has earned the unwanted tag of ’nearly man’ on snooker’s biggest stage after losing the 2000 final plus three semi-finals in the last four years.

But the 27-year-old will go into the closing day holding a 10-6 advantage in the best-of-35-frames showdown – and on course to complete a career Grand Slam.

World number six Stevens has already won the game’s other two most prestigious titles in the 2000 Masters and the 2003 UK Championships – his only ranking title to date.

Much of the opening day was an attritional affair with both finalists struggling to produce the form displayed earlier in the tournament.

Born-again Christian Murphy, bidding to become the second-youngest world champion at the age of 22 behind Stephen Hendry, finally seemed to be affected by nerves after playing and potting without fear for the previous fortnight.

An indication of the scrappy nature of proceedings was that five of the opening 10 frames spanned 30 minutes or more and both players will know they seldom performed to their very best.

Only in the final part of the second session were there signs of the duo settling down and displaying the fluency that is their trademark when on song.

Murphy, who had knocked out three former world champions in John Higgins, Steve Davis and Peter Ebdon, may find it hard to sleep after surrendering a crucial last frame when odds on to end up only 9-7 in arrears.

He found himself 56-30 ahead but then conceded 20 points when snookered on the final yellow to bring Stevens right back into contention.

Murphy had another chance but failed to convert the brown – and in stepped Stevens for a clearance to stretch the gap to four frames.

The opening session had only three half-century breaks, the highest being a 60 in frame three by Stevens.

Both players asked for the cue ball to be changed after a scrappy first frame because it was not white enough – but the quality of play did not improve with its replacement.

Murphy’s play was littered with hitherto unseen errors and he will have been relieved to have escaped with a 5-3 deficit from the first session.

Stevens threatened to run away with proceedings when play resumed, with a 39 clearance pulling the first frame of the session out of the fire after Murphy had gone in-off on the penultimate red when 53-15 ahead.

He edged home in the next before Murphy finally moved into top gear with a splendid 125 clearance and a 66 to reduce his leeway to 7-5.

At last the capacity audience was treated to top-quality snooker, with runs of 78 and 86 from Murphy followed by an 84 clearance from Stevens before what could prove to be a pivotal final frame.

Stevens has claimed he is in a stronger frame of mind to cope with the pressure on him to finally deliver the goods at Sheffield.

But in the back of his mind will be that he led 10-6 in his other final appearance against Mark Williams five years ago – and lost.

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