The numbers add up for the golden Nugget
Steve Davis, winner of six World Championships, talks to Desmond Kane about his love for the sport ahead of a record 29th appearance at the Crucible For a sport that is immersed in numbers, points and statistics, there is a tantalising timeline framing this year's World Snooker Championship. The pigment in his hair may no longer contain its piercing hallmark ginger, but the man they call "The Nugget", a nickname attributed to his voracious earning capacity in his peak period, will make a record 29th appearance at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
Steve Davis seems to have been forever defined by a plethora of thumping figures. Davis has won more professional titles than any other player with his 73, has reached 100 finals, made the first televised 147 maximum break and has banked close to £6million (Dh32.8m) in career earnings. He is 51, but has a provisional world ranking of 24 that is less than half his age. He remains a significant draw for what he gave to his sport in the 1980s.
It has been 30 years since he first meandered through the Crucible doors. He won the last of his six titles at the same compressed venue 20 years ago. It may not be well publicised, but to throw in another timeline, it has been 10 years or so since his old foe Terry Griffiths urged Davis to quit because his game had become in the Welshman's view "an embarrassment". Quitting has never been in Davis's mindset. In the final qualifying round to reach the Crucible, he recovered from a 5-0 deficit to overcome Lee Spick 10-8. It was typical Davis.
Davis, as Rudyard Kipling once wrote, has met with triumph and disaster in a career spanning 31 years. He has treated both those imposters just the same. His manager, Barry Hearn, never short of a soundbite or two, proclaimed him a sporting icon comparable to Muhammed Ali or Bjorn Bjorg after he wiped out John Parrott 18-3 in the 1989 final. It is the biggest winning margin for a final at the Crucible. He now analyses the game with his victim in that final in his part-time role as a pundit for BBC television.
"Is it really 20 years since that final?" asks Davis. "A lot of balls have been potted since then. There are a lot of new players, the standard has risen and the game has changed severely. To be playing half as well after so many years is quite startling. I didn't win many events after that. It was my last World Championship." When Davis last won the world title, Nelson Mandela was still in prison, the Berlin Wall loomed large in Germany and Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that Davis spent more time on British television in the 1980s than "the Iron Lady", such was the fashion for following the green baize.
Davis was introduced to the game by his father Bill, who gave him a book called 'How I play snooker' by Joe Davis, his namesake and predecessor who won the first of more than a dozen world titles in the 1920s. Davis has been and remains a fine example of the corinthian spirit, an argument against the Vince Lombardi "show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser" train of thought. Davis is self-effacing, a pillar of good sportsmanship, a man that old rascal Willie Thorne, a figure of fodder for Davis in his prime, baldly describes as the game's "greatest ambassador".
He may no longer exude what he calls the "superiority complex" that allowed him to ride roughshod over the competition in the 1980s, but witnessing him compete at the elite levels of his sport gives off a warm, gooey sensation of nostalgia. It is a bit like watching the venerable Gary Player give the US Masters another go last week, but Davis is not in Sheffield to take a ceremonial drive down memory lane.
Millions tend to take a trip back to yesteryear at this stage of the year. They recall the time Davis lost a last-frame black-ball finish to Dennis Taylor on a Sunday night. 18.5 million viewers watched Davis go down that night in the final of 1985. It is ironic Davis's finest time was a losing time, a rare moment of desolation in the halcyon period. It was a time when players were treated like Premier League footballers in the UK, a period when Davis was named BBC sports personality of the year.
"Snooker players are no longer noticed like they were in the 80s when they walked down a street," says Davis. "There are more TV channels, people have other things to do, but the viewing figures the BBC get for the sport are healthy." Davis's harvest years allowed his bloody single-mindedness to bash up the competition. He remains a contender to win matches in the modern era when older foes have long gone and, as he puts it, he "can still turn a trick or two".
In snooker parlance, Davis is an antiques roadshow whose worth to his sport is vastly superior to the trophy the winner will walk away with after a 17-day tournament that is a mental marathon. The three greatest players to pick up a cue, the defending champion Ronnie O'Sullivan with three titles behind him, Stephen Hendry, who went one better than Davis with his seventh title in 1999, and Davis, are all competing in Sheffield. People should enjoy such moments while they last.
Davis has his own views on who is the greatest between two opposites from different generations. "Ronnie is a mercurial character who is up and down, whereas the other, in his prime, was a winning machine. I think Stephen Hendry's seven World Championships and all the other titles he has won, make him the greatest player I have came across," says Davis. "But the standard of play that Ronnie produces is even higher. The actual standard he comes up with is astonishing, it's on a different level. It just depends on how you are viewing it. They have different assets."
To put Davis's longevity into some sort of perspective, he has been playing the game longer than the Crucible has been hosting the World Championship. He starts out against the Australian Neil Robertson on Tuesday in the first round of this year's tournament, which gets under way tomorrow. Davis won his first World Championship by downing Doug Mountjoy in 1981. Robertson was born a year later. There was a time when Davis could have looked ahead to who would lie in wait in the latter stages. Cliff Thorburn, Jimmy White, Dennis Taylor, Alex Higgins and Griffiths were his main challengers in the 1980s.
A match against a player from Oz would invariably lead to a tactical battle with "Steady" Eddie Charlton, which would lead to a Davis win, but these are different days. Robertson has a ferocious potting game and could make Davis's table time in Sheffield short-lived, but he has mellowed with the years. "I'm pleased to be involved again, obviously as a player," says Davis. "It's always a thrill to play at the Crucible. I don't think you ever replicate the buzz of the early years, but the build up and the excitement before the tournament starts give you the same feeling as a kid at Christmas almost.
"My personality has changed over the years. I'm going there not expecting anything, and going to enjoy it rather than thinking that losing is failure." Davis's game descended into a state of torpor in the 1990s as he fought a losing battle to regain his prized No 1 spot. He recovered from 8-4 behind to beat O'Sullivan 10-8 in the Masters in 1997, but that was a rare bright spot. "It wasn't necessarily my problem, it was other guys getting better, but you tend to look at yourself. The 1990s were a time of frustration," he explains. "Hendry moved up a few levels, and, for whatever reason, I lost the magic. The standard was getting better, and I couldn't work out how to improve myself."
It is probably ironic that Davis has experienced a resurgence in form when adopting a carefree attitude. He reached the final of the 2004 Welsh Open losing 9-8 to O'Sullivan, and went down 10-6 to Ding Junhui in the final of the UK Championship. It was his run to that final that saw Hearn, never short of a quote or two 30 years after he first spotted Davis's capabilities, extol his benefits by demanding that he should be granted a knighthood for services to the sport.
"If I reproduce the sort of form I ran into at the UK Championship that would be interesting. If I went any sort of distance in the event, it would be fascinating to see how I could cope with that," says the man from Brentwood in Essex. "But it would be hard to bet against Ronnie O'Sullivan or [two-time world champion] John Higgins. I'm more surprised when John loses, because he always gives 100 per cent, whereas Ronnie is up and down. If either one of those finds any form, they will be like a steamroller at this tournament, and they are also mentally tougher than the rest."
An estimated 120 million will watch the Chinese players Ding Junhui and Ling Wenbo play live in their homeland, but Davis is unconvinced about the merits of moving the finals away from the UK. "I don't see the need to change location. If China got much stronger in the game and started getting more and more sponsors then you would have a valid point. It is like saying if China became a great destination for tennis that China should take over Wimbledon," opines Davis. "You would lose a bit of history if you take the tournament away from the Crucible. I think it is a superb venue, and is the most overawing venue we play in."
Davis is unlikely to be overawed by what must be considered a homecoming. The satirical British comedy show Spitting Image once described him as Steve "Interesting" Davis in the 1980s. He continues to cut a figure of sporting folklore, and is a fellow of some appeal. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: April 17, 2009 04:00 AM