When Steve Davis won his first World Snooker Championship 40 years ago
Davis won his first title at the Crucible the hard way, beating a young Jimmy White and three previous world champions
By Steven Pye
for That 1980s Sports Blog
Steve Davis is all smiles at the Crucible in April 1981. Photograph: Getty Images
Thu 22 Apr 2021 10.31 BST
Although Steve Davis was the 7-2 favourite to win the World Snooker Championship
in 1981, his path to glory was littered with obstacles. To clinch his first world title he would have to beat a future star of the sport in the first round, see off three past winners and then hold his nerve in the final.
With seedings at the Crucible based on the three previous World Championships, Davis was seeded 13th for the event, giving him a tough draw. Yet the 23-year-old was clearly the man to beat. He had already won the UK Championship, the Wilson’s Classic, the Yamaha Organs Trophy and the John Courage English Professional Championship in the 1980-81 season. “This is the big one to win,” said Davis. “I know I’m capable of winning it – whether I do or not is another matter. I’d part with blood to win this one.”
Davis had not taken a break from tournaments or exhibition matches for 62 days before the World Championship, but he did not look too fatigued as he worked his way through the top half of the draw. “I’m looking forward to spending a fortnight in one place for a change, but I won’t want to get bored,” said Davis, who played Space Invaders and computer chess to entertain himself in his hotel.
The hype before the tournament showed how popular snooker was at the time. “Here it comes again: the most mesmeric of all the telly-snooker events,” said the TV listings in the Guardian. The showpiece event was sponsored by Embassy and enjoyed by millions watching live on the BBC.
Davis played the 18-year-old world amateur champion Jimmy White in the first round. White had only turned professional six months before and at first it looked as if Davis would stroll into the second round. He hit the first century of the tournament as he moved into an 8-4 lead over White, but his opponent started to reel him back. Twice White reduced the deficit to a single frame, before a composed break of 71 helped Davis over the line.
“I am glad, in a way, to have been scared a little at this stage of the championship,” said Davis after his 10-8 win. The White match proved ideal preparation for his tussle in the second round against Alex Higgins, the player who had defeated Davis in the quarter-finals the year before.
Davis has a drink while Higgins has a smoke. Photograph: Getty Images
The match against Higgins followed a similar pattern to his victory over White. After taking a 6-2, Davis lost ground and had his lead cut back to 9-7. The comeback looked on when Higgins made a break of 47 in the opening frame of the next day. But Davis clung on and a break of 45 helped him win the frame. “It was the most important break I’ve made for months,” said Davis. “It was the key to the match.”
The 13-8 win over Higgins set up a quarter-final with Terry Griffiths. Davis had beaten Griffiths in the World Championship the year before when Griffiths was the reigning champion, and he had also hammered the Welshman 9-0 in the semi-final of the UK Championship. He prevailed again at the Crucible to book a spot in the semi-finals, but it would take a great deal of time and patience.
From 4-4 overnight, Davis moved into a 9-5 lead. Yet, with a couple of frames taking 57 and 53 minutes, the second session was cut short. The queuing crowds outside had to be let into the Crucible for the evening session. Eventually Davis won 13-9 to book a semi-final against Cliff Thorburn, the reigning world champion.
The Canadian had beaten Graham Miles and David Taylor comfortably before his lengthy and at times tetchy meeting with Davis. Thorburn took the opening frame – the first time Davis had trailed in the tournament – and built an 8-6 lead. Crucially Davis won six of the next eight frames to lead 12-10 overnight, but was a touch of controversy in the final frame in the early hours of the Saturday morning.
Davis led 80-23 and, with just the pink and black remaining on the table, he reached to shake Thorburn’s hand. Even though he needed eight snookers, Thorburn seemed appalled by this gesture and pointed to the remaining balls on the table. Thorburn addressed the cue ball and then stepped away from the table and mimicked Davis’s habit of taking slow slips of water. Returning to play his next shot, Thorburn then conceded.
It was a peculiar reaction and one for which Thorburn later apologised. Clive Everton, writing in the Guardian, reported that Thorburn had called Davis “an arrogant bastard” backstage, adding that he would be coming for Davis on the next day. Unruffled, Davis won the next four frames, before saying it was “the hardest match I have ever played”.
Steve Davis in action against Terry Griffiths in the quarter-finals. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock
Having beaten three world champions, Davis now faced 14th seed Doug Mountjoy in the final. The Welshman had seen off Willie Thorne, Eddie Charlton, Dennis Taylor and Ray Reardon to reach his first World Championship final, hitting a record break of 145 in the semi-finals.
When Davis surged into a 6-0 lead, it looked as if his pre-match odds of 1-3 were fully justified. Mountjoy won the next, before taking a bizarre eighth frame. With just three colours left on the table and Davis leading by a point, referee John Williams ordered a re-rack, as the black ball hung over a pocket in close proximity to the blue. A total of 37 safety shots in nearly 15 minutes led to the decision.
Mountjoy fought hard to regain some footing in the match, a break of 129 in the 14th frame helping him claw back the score to 10-8 as day one ended. The players won three frames each at the start of the final day before a vital point arrived in the 25th frame. Looking to narrow the gap to just one frame, Mountjoy missed an easy blue and Davis stepped in to take advantage and move 14-11 in front.
The Welshman responded bravely by taking the next frame, but it was to be his last of the tournament. Davis won four frames in a row, including a break of 119 in the 28th frame, to win the match 18-12 and clinch his first World Snooker
As he sunk the final pink, Davis closed his eyes and took a step back from the table before shaking the hand of Mountjoy
. The second youngest man to win the World Championship – behind Higgins at the time – was then nearly wiped out in a moment of celebration with his manager Barry Hearn
. And then came the tears.
Steve Davis cracks open the champagne at the Crucible. Photograph: David Muscroft/Rex/Shutterstock