Ones to Watch: Matthew Stevens

Welshman Matthew Stevens is one of the modern era’s perennial under-achievers.

Even though he has enjoyed a pretty successful career so far, he has failed to capitalise on his obvious talent but found a resurgence in his form last season that earned the 33 year-old a return to the Top 16 in the world rankings.

Like another player tipped for greatness in Mark Selby, Stevens has succumbed to the pressure on finals day on a number of occasions.

Indeed, ‘The Welsh Dragon’ has appeared in seven world ranking event finals, emerging successful on only one occasion.

That moment finally arrived at the 2003 UK Championship when he edged seven-times world champion Stephen Hendry 10-8 in York.

Three years prior to this Stevens won the prestigious invitational event The Masters by a similar scoreline but the encounter will remembered more for Ken Doherty’s missed black on a 147 attempt than for Stevens’ triumph.

Unfortunately, the former world number four will remembered most for his defeats in the finals of some of the sport’s biggest tournaments.

Stevens lost in two UK Championship finals before his eventual victory in 2003 while he has been defeated in two World Championship finals – both by the narrow margin of 18-16.

In his two clashes with countryman Mark Williams in 2000 and Shaun Murphy five years later, Stevens surrendered four-frame advantages as he failed to control the intense emotions in the cauldron of The Crucible.

Aside from still performing well at both the UKs and the Worlds – he particularly enjoyed championships with longer formats – Stevens had already showed signs of his form dipping.

Immediately after he broke his duck of ranking event misery, Stevens went on an unenviable stretch of nine consecutive defeats in first round best of 9 matches.

This inconsistency finally caught up with him when, after once again failing to see off Murphy in the quarter-finals of the 2007 World Championship, Stevens dropped out of the Top 16.

It was a difficult time, though, as he struggled to come to terms with the death of his best friend Paul Hunter from cancer and the form and confidence he oozed was reflected in his poor run.

Yet, in the last campaign the Welshman began to show some of the old desire and many believe he is back where he belongs – among the world’s elite.

He reached the quarter-finals of both the Shanghai Masters and his home tournament of the Welsh Open while he made a welcomed return to the winner’s enclosure with victory in the competitive Championship League.

The win ensured automatic selection for the 2011 Premier League later this year where he will mix it with the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Neil Robertson.

Despite once again allowing a three frame lead to slip between his fingers in the first round of the recent World Championship against Mark Allen, his qualification meant a return to Sheffield for the first time in three years.

Stevens will surely have more confidence in his game at the moment and he will be one of the players who are extremely thankful that the new season is beginning so early.

What he will be especially looking forward to is not having to defend a significant number of ranking points from a poor 2009/10 season, which means a further surge up the rankings from 14th is likely.

There is no question that this is good for the game because Stevens, when right-minded, is an incredibly attractive player to watch.

He is a powerful break-builder and is fluid around the table much to the same way O’Sullivan or Williams can be when they are at their most devastating best.

Stevens’ temperament will remain a topic for discussion for many as he has proven too many times in the past that he can be prone to tense up in the crucial moments but, Jimmy White aside, he is probably considered as the best player to have never won the World Championship.

He still has time to rectify this. Even though he has been around for what seems like forever, Stevens is still only 33 while Higgins and Williams have been proving that age is no barrier to success.

There may not be the big prize at the end of the tunnel but victory in any ranking event would complete a remarkable turn of fortunes for Stevens and expect to see him go very close to achieving that feat in the next 12 months.

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