MATTHEW Stevens will feature in what many might see as his rightful place on Saturday - against Ronnie O’Sullivan, in a huge match on the Crucible stage he has graced so often.

Given the impact made by a fresh-faced Welsh wizard in his big breakthrough in the 1999-2000 season, it remains a surprise Stevens does not have a clutch of major titles to his name.

But life and professional sport does not always work out the way you hope, or think it should. Stevens is not alone in having suffered the slings and arrows of misfortune, but he has certainly had his fair share.

And in addition to some duff cards life has occasionally dealt him, there have been other contributory factors more of his own making – something to which he readily and honestly admits.

After winning the Scottish Masters in 1999 Stevens won the Wembley Masters 15 years ago, beating Ken Doherty 10-8 in the final.

When he followed that up with a Crucible world final appearance in 2000 against compatriot Mark Williams, even the pain of defeat was lessened by the expectation of plenty of greater glories to come.

Stevens then won the UK title in 2003, and by the time he lost again in the world final to Shaun Murphy in 2005 he had been in the semi-finals or better in Sheffield in five of six years.

A popular figure with a Rolls Royce of a cue action, Stevens was to have to wait another seven years to get back to the single-table set-up on the biggest stage – a sixth world semi-final in total.

Now 37 and ranked No35 in the world, the problems for Stevens really started with the death of father, friend, manager and mentor Morrell back in 2001. It was a devastating blow at a time when his career was really taking off.

Then five years later Stevens was probably the player most affected by the tragically premature death of Paul Hunter. The pair were great friends, and though completely different personalities almost inseparable on the circuit.

To his credit the former world No4 never once used Hunter’s death at the time or afterwards as an excuse, but it was another personal hammer blow and his form tailed off.

But Stevens knows he has not always helped himself. His dedication levels have not always been the best, surfing and relying on his talent and not putting in the hours of practice – and there have been plenty of late nights along the way.

Yet battered and bruised as he may be with also financial problems reported in the newspapers in February and a divorce pending, a player that so many still admire insists he has rolled with the punches, and has no real regrets.

Stevens said: “It has been tough the last few years. There are ups and downs in sport, and I seem to have had a lot more downs than ups certainly in recent years.

“But I keep fighting and that’s what you have to do. I believe in myself and I have put some work in lately, not as much as I should.

“I have got away with to a certain extent it in some ways over the years not practising or working hard enough, but though I am slipping down a bit now I still believe I can do it on the big stage.

“Ability gets you so far but you do get found out. If you don’t put the work in you don’t get anything out and I have proved that often enough.

“I have reached finals of tournaments without my cue even. In Haikou I hadn’t practiced for four weeks, played without my cue and got to the final.

“I don’t think about regrets too much, it all makes me the person I am today. So not really. And I think you have to be a bit like that, be strong to stay competing.

“I have had difficulties to overcome in my life and career, but so does everyone. What happened with my dad just as I was at my peak of achievement at 22 knocked me for six and affected me for a long time.

“That year I won the Masters, got to the final of the UK and the World Championship and won the Regal Masters – I was knocking on the door of winning the World Championship a few times.

“But that’s gone now, things happen in life and there are more important things in life than snooker. You just have to keep fighting.

“Obviously losing Paul Hunter was also a major blow. I didn’t talk about it much at the time, and never used it as any sort of excuse for myself.

“But he was my best mate. We shared rooms together, travelled everywhere on the tour together, and I used to go and stay up there in Leeds sometimes.

“He was such a character and everyone loved him, he never moaned about anything – even in his last few days, not one thing. That was the man he was, and to lose a close friend like that was tough.

“But I felt really comfortable out there in the first round, and good in myself which I haven’t done for a number of years. Hopefully that is a good sign.

“I am happier, a lot happier in my personal life and that helps. I am just going through and finalising my divorce at the moment and then I can talk a bit more about the financial side of it – I can’t talk about in detail at the moment, but I am a lot happier.”


Photograph by Monique Limbos