Matthew Stevens suffered another attack of Crucible jitters as outsider Shaun Murphy staged a stunning comeback in the Embassy World Championship final.
Stevens has earned the unwanted tag of nearly-man when competing on snooker’s biggest stage after losing the 2000 final plus three other semi-finals in the last four years.
He ended the opening day of the best of 35-frame marathon in command against Murphy via a 10-6 advantage.
But thoughts of Murphy finally crumbling to his more experienced opponent after a fortnight of glory proved unfounded.
The Rotherham-based player, who had to win through two qualifying rounds at Prestatyn in February, rocked Stevens back on his heels by winning five of the seven frames in the third session to cut his deficit to 12-11.
The contrast between the performance of Murphy on the opening day to when play resumed could not have been more diverse.
For the first time Crucible nerves appeared to affect the 150-1 outsider at the advent of the final and the long potting which had destroyed ex-world champions John Higgins, Steve Davis and Peter Ebdon deserted him.
Stevens was also below par in what became an attritional affair with five frames yesterday spanning more than half an hour in length although he just about deserved his overnight lead.
But when play resumed it was Murphy, only the third qualifier to reach the World final, who seized the initiative.
He looked more assured from the start with a 51 break helping him to win frame 17 and then a run of 56 was decisive in the next.
Stevens temporarily re-established himself with the aid of a 38 but he was powerless to stop the onslaught from Murphy although he contributed towards his own downfall with some sloppy safety play.
Murphy stole frame 20 with an 80 clearance after Stevens’ initial 60 had made him favourite and, when the players returned after the mid-session interval, a magnificent 137 total clearance cut the gap to 11-10.
The 22nd frame was the longest of the match so far, lasting nearly 41 minutes but Murphy held his nerve to put the final three colours after Stevens had missed a blue into the middle when trying to force the cue ball around the angles.
Stevens won only his second frame of the day with the aid of a 52 to edge back in front before a frame was lopped off the session to give the players an adequate break before play resumes this evening.
Murphy has already guaranteed himself the biggest pay-day of his career - £125,000 (€184,258) even if he loses – compared with the previous best of just £15,000 when he was a first-round loser at Sheffield two years ago.
The incentive to triumph is massive for the player as it would guarantee him qualification for the latter stages of all next season’s tournaments even though he would not have broken into snooker’s top 16.
Stevens, currently ranked No 6 in the world, would move up to No 3 for 2005-2006 if he gained his first world crown.
He is hoping to complete his own personal Grand Slam having won snooker’s other two major tournaments, the Masters and UK Championship, in 2000 and 20003 respectively.