World of Sport

Hendon: Stephen Lee – a fine career that ends in disgrace

World of Sport

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I've covered most of Stephen Lee's professional career. I was present at all five of his ranking title victories and have interviewed him many times.

His has been a fine career but today it ended in disgrace. It seems likely he will be handed a lengthy ban.

Lee was a member of the class of ’92, part of golden generation of teenagers who had grown up during the British snooker boom when the game was a major television attraction.

Born in Wiltshire in 1974, he had a multitude of junior tournaments in which to play as snooker took a foothold in the sporting landscape of the UK during the 1980s.

The junior events were highly competitive due to the sheer number of entrants and helped forge some formidable talents ready to turn professional. Lee was among the leading lights poised to do some damage in the pro ranks after he won the 1992 English amateur title at the age of 18.

And so to the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool a few weeks later where Lee lined up with hundreds of other hopefuls. The professional game had gone open the previous year and the Norbreck ballroom heaved with new faces, old stagers, solid match players and the deluded.

Lee was certainly one to watch, as were his contemporaries Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams, all of whom were also taking their first steps on the pro ladder.

Lee fared well that first season, at one point winning six successive qualifying matches by way of whitewash and racking up a record run of 33 consecutive frames. He would go on to reach the quarter-finals of the European Open and finished his debut season 101st in the world rankings – higher than both Higgins and Williams.

He did not quite match the pace of O’Sullivan, Higgins and Williams, either in the next few seasons or his career as a whole, but his overall record makes him one of the most successful players of the last 15 years.

Lee’s major professional breakthrough came at the 1998 Grand Prix, in which he defeated Marco Fu 9-2 in the final, a brilliant performance which included two centuries and eight half centuries.

In addition, Lee beat Fu, Stephen Hendry and O’Sullivan to win the 1999 Millennium Cup invitation title in Hong Kong. He finished runner-up in the 1999 Irish Masters – losing 9-8 to Hendry from 8-4 up – and the China Open later that year.

Lee was edged 9-8 by Higgins in the 2000 Welsh Open final. I remember his father, Colin, back then a regular on the circuit, sitting watching every ball in agony in the pressroom.

Lee, over whose silky smooth cue action many purred, was by now firmly ensconced in the top 16. In 2001 he won a second ranking title, the LG Cup in Preston. Victory was all the sweeter because of who he beat in the final.

Six months earlier, he had been beaten 13-12 by Peter Ebdon in the second round of the World Championship. In the decider, Ebdon celebrated triumphantly after potting a black to leave Lee requiring two snookers, even though the match was not, strictly speaking, over.

I was the only journalist to interview Lee afterwards. I went up to his dressing room and could see he was furious. Part of this was the disappointment of losing such a close match, but he turned his fire on Ebdon: “It was over the top. It wasn’t sporting behaviour. He should leave that kind of thing in the dressing room. I hope Ronnie beats him. I couldn’t handle it if he won the tournament.”

The summer came and went and we found ourselves at the first event of the new season, the Scottish Masters. It was Lee who immediately brought up the Ebdon incident and it was clear time had not been a healer: “If he doesn’t apologise to me then I won’t play in the Nations Cup with him” (they were due to play together for England, but the event was ultimately cancelled).

So Lee’s 9-4 defeat of Ebdon was a source of great satisfaction and proved how much – back then – winning and losing meant to him.

Lee won the 2002 Scottish Open and 2006 Welsh Open, was runner-up in the 2002 Thailand Masters and a semi-finalist at the 2003 World Championship. Having achieved a highest ranking of fifth, he remained in the top 16 until 2008, his form becoming patchier and playing opportunities fewer.

It was in the period that followed that he is judged by the investigation to have deliberately lost frames and matches.

The irony is that he was very much back to his best by the time he was suspended following a Premier League match last year.

In the second half of the 2011/12 campaign he reached the German Masters semi-finals, Welsh Open quarter-finals, World Open final, China Open semi-finals and won the PTC Grand Finals in Galway, his fifth world ranking title.

When his career came to a premature halt last October, Lee had earned just over £2m in career prize money, but we have no record of how much he spent.

Off table, like most players, he was down to earth and good company. He seemed to be well liked on the circuit.

Stories of suspicious performances emerged but hard evidence did not. Lee was arrested in 2010 but the police investigation was dropped.

The WPBSA’s integrity unit did pursue the case and the Sports Resolutions inquiry has now found him guilty of cheating the sport he once dreamed of simply being a part. The evidence against him is both damning and shaming.

David Hendon

David Hendon is the assistant editor of Snooker Scene magazine. He commentates on snooker for Eurosport and writes for various newspapers and publications. This piece was originally published on the Snooker Scene Blog.

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