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SNOOKER: Murphy starts new journey as old era goes up in smoke

SHAUN MURPHY'S World Championship win over Matthew Stevens late on Monday night brought one era of snooker to a close and opened another.

Gone forever is the lucrative sponsorship of tobacco companies, most notably Embassy, which invested £23m in snooker during a 30-year association. In its place, there is financial uncertainty, underpinned by a governing body's chronic inability to exploit the game's huge commercial potential.

The paradox is that snooker has rarely had such strength in depth in terms of talented hopefuls who are capable of winning ranking events. Murphy, 22, is one of them, and will no doubt continue his climb up the world rankings, in which he leapt from No 48 to No 21 yesterday.

Another reward for Monday's win is that he will be seeded No 2 for every event next season, increasing his chances of success.

Stephen Maguire, 24, the new world No 3, is another name you should expect to win a world title. If he had not had the misfortune of being drawn against Ronnie O'Sullivan in the opening round this year, he might already have done so.

O'Sullivan himself could and should dominate for years to come, but whether he chooses to play on remains to be seen.

Then there's Ding Jun Hui, the world No 62 from Shanghai, who celebrated turning 18 last month with victory in the China Open in front of a partisan television audience of more than 100 million people.

Ding's popularity, and indeed snooker's enormous potential in Asia, will be explored further next season when a series of three m ajor events is staged in China, Thailand and Macau by World Snooker, the governing body.

That is a step in the right direction, but is belated and by no means a replacement for positive action to grow the game in Britain and elsewhere.

It is remarkable that such a popular sport - No 2 in Britain only to football in the amount of hours of annual television coverage - should be scraping around to attract cash.

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Certainly, the audience is greying, which in itself needs to be addressed. But millions still watch events throughout the year, on terrestrial and satellite television stations.

And if the governing body needs to look towards Saga or Zimmer or Viagra to pep up its income, so be it.

The search in earnest for a new sponsor will start once the BBC has signed a new deal to s creen the World Championship up to 2010, which is imminent.

Murphy, the first qualifier to reach a world final since Terry Griffiths in 1979, became the second-youngest player, after Stephen Hendry, to win one.

Yesterday, after a quiet night celebrating with family and friends, he was simply looking forward to spending his £250,000 prize, which will go on his July wedding to fiancee Clare, and also on a new Mercedes.

He also wants to build on his achievement. He said: "Winning is the end of a long journey but also the start of a new journey. As a kid all I wanted to be was world champion. It's incredible to be world champion. Now I'll strive to be the next world No 1."

"One of the talents of a champion is turning a bad day into a good day. I have got no regrets whatsoever. All I ever wanted to do was play snooker and I have been very lucky.

"Last night we had a bottle of champagne to celebrate when I got home but I didn't do anything particularly special. I had 42 missed calls, 64 text calls and the phone has just been going mental. Those numbers have probably doubled by now." (© Independent News Service)

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