John Higgins: 'If snooker fails to grow it may not be here in 10 years'
The Brian Viner Interview: As he heads to the World Championships hoping to keep hold of the trophy, the Scot discusses stalkers, alcohol and how his sport must adapt to survive
Thursday 15 April 2010
Should John Higgins successfully defend his title in the Betfred.com World Snooker Championship beginning on Saturday, one person likely to celebrate is a fearsome looking Russian woman called Olga. In its traditional heartland, snooker is a somewhat beleaguered sport, but the forays into previously uncharted territory in Europe have created a new fan base, and at a tournament in Russia, the likeable, unassuming man from Lanarkshire caught Olga's gimlet eye.
"She followed me from there to the Crucible, and then she followed me to Portugal," says Higgins, with an uneasy laugh. "I did think that I had a stalker for a while. But in Portugal, luckily, my wife was there to save me." Did he need saving? "Well, she wanted to talk to me and she was a little bit scary. She's, erm, quite big." By now, we are both laughing, at the notion of big Olga bearing down on him like a James Bond villainess.
"I suppose that if the sport's going to grow, we have to be prepared to run into things like that," he adds. "With some other top players I'm part of a company trying to put on events in Europe, especially Germany, but also Poland, Austria, Russia. There's so much talent coming out of the Far East now, and we want the same thing in Europe."
Maybe Olga will one day have a deep-screwing Dmitri, a safety- conscious Sergei, to root for. In the meantime, Higgins doesn't know whether she will be in Sheffield for this year's championship, but if you see him nervously scanning the audience when he steps out on Saturday, you'll understand why.
As for the more salient business of whether he's in the right kind of form to win his fourth world title, Higgins doesn't know the answer to that question, either. "There's such little tournament play these days that it's hard to gauge. I think I've secured the number one spot for next year regardless of what happens in Sheffield, but the most recent tournament I won was last May."
Plainly, the sport has suffered from lacklustre management these last few years. But "lacklustre" is the last word anyone can apply to the former grand panjandrum of snooker, Barry Hearn, who is back running the show. My interview with Higgins takes place at the swanky RAC Club in London, ahead of a press conference to herald the imminent world championship, and when I arrive Hearn is already there, in his best bib and tucker, radiating his particular brand of charisma.
"Barry has a blueprint for the game," says Higgins. "He wants a lot more tournaments for less prize money. We've all got to get away from this idea that the big money's still around. It was fantastic when I came into snooker, when tobacco was throwing lots of money at it, and even when they fell away we thought others would come in because of all the TV exposure. But it didn't happen. And now we need to grow the sport again because if we don't, it might not be around in 10 years' time. Back in 1997, 1998, I played in 16 or 17 tournaments, with first prizes of £50,000 or £60,000. Now the money's down to maybe £40,000 or £50,000, but the real difference is that there are only five or six tournaments."
He insists that the world championship, however, has lost none of its sheen. "At the Crucible you're cocooned from all that," says Higgins. "For atmosphere there's nowhere else like it, except maybe a place called Goffs in County Kildare, where they used to have the Benson & Hedges Irish Masters, in a ring where they sell horses. That was fantastic too."
If 34-year-old Higgins was horseflesh, he'd command a hell of a price in the Goffs ring. His comprehensive, 18-9 defeat of Shaun Murphy in last year's final yielded his third world title (following wins in 1998 and 2007) and a firm place in the game's all-time elite; only eight other players have lifted the trophy more than once, but more significantly, only Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O'Sullivan and now Higgins have won three or more titles at the Crucible.
But he hasn't done it all on his own. During a break in last year's quarter-final, when he was 11-9 down to Mark Selby and facing elimination, Higgins received a text message from his wife Denise, who was back home in Scotland, in front of the telly. "She could sense that my body language wasn't right," he recalls. The message was unequivocal – "Don't you bloody dare give this up without a fight" – and it had the desired effect. Higgins rallied, and Selby was beaten.
Ironically, Denise can't monitor his body language as closely if she's actually in the auditorium; the three young Higgins offspring see to that. "At home she can put a DVD on for them, but if she brings them to a final she's still looking after them. It was funny actually, because at last year's final I came out for the first session against Shaun Murphy, we had the customary handshake, and then the oldest one, Pierce, shouted, 'C'mon daddy!' And Shaun said, 'Oh look, he's playing the kiddie card on me already'. That got a big laugh, and it broke the tension."
It is no wonder that snooker audiences, used to that cathedral hush, always fall on evidence of humour like ravening dogs on a carcass. The accusation often levelled at the game these days is that, O'Sullivan aside, it lacks characters. Does Higgins, a highly engaging fellow yet supposedly one of those non-characters, agree?
"Well, it's hard sometimes to be a character when you're at that table. The game has changed since the 1980s. Everyone's more professional. Steve Davis started it, then Stephen Hendry came along and took it to another level. Now, the Chinese players are on the table for 10 hours a day, practising. But I take your point about characters. In the 1980s snooker stars were treated like Big Brother stars today. Now, I can walk down the street and nobody bats an eyelid. I quite like that. You either crave it or you don't. But if you're a world champion and don't get recognised much, maybe something is wrong with the sport. So it's good to have Barry grabbing us, saying we have to show some personality. We don't want it to be too gimmicky, but we've got to try something."
Hence, I suppose, his own recent appearance on Celebrity Mastermind, on which his specialist subject was the TV serial Dallas. He has all the box sets. "I could have done football, but my friends would have ribbed me if I'd got the questions wrong. I did OK on Dallas, but my general knowledge let me down. I finished joint last with Michael Howard, the former Conservative leader." A big laugh. "But maybe that says more about him than me."
His favourite Dallas character was always the clean-cut Bobby, he adds, but since reading up on it he prefers JR. "I read that he [Larry Hagman] was drinking a bottle of whisky a day on the set, and when you watch it now you can see his eyes all glassed over. That must have been some set."
This brings us neatly to his own run-in with the demon drink. In 2006, with fellow player Ken Doherty, Higgins was ordered off a plane in Malta for being obviously inebriated. "It was embarrassing. We all enjoy a drink, but you can do it to excess sometimes, and that's the west of Scotland way. I don't do that now, but once the story's out, people add arms and legs to it, saying all sorts of things that aren't true. It was distressing for my wife. She was walking downstairs after just bathing the kids, and there was the press banging on the door."
Meanwhile, at Heathrow Airport, Higgins and Doherty had stepped off a later flight from Malta into banks of photographers. "Honestly, we were looking behind us. We thought Madonna or someone must have been on the plane. But then we realised they were there for us. It was a storm in a tea cup, really, but in a way maybe even bad news is good for the sport. It keeps it in the public eye."
And what of the player who does more than any other to keep snooker in the public eye? Higgins has already told me that his advice to youngsters is always the same – never play anyone you can beat, always ask the best player in the club for a game – but what is it like for him, a three-time world champion, when he watches O'Sullivan playing a brand of snooker that is beyond even him?
"I enjoy it. It's fantastic, seeing someone make the game look that ridiculously easy, but then you don't know how you're perceived in other players' eyes. And I know how hard Ronnie practises to make it look that easy on the eye. You see it in every sport. Roger Federer. Lionel Messi. But I wouldn't say Tiger Woods. To me he looks mechanical. I'd say Ernie Els."
Of course, Els would be an even wealthier man if his time hadn't coincided with that of Woods. Does Higgins feel the same about Rocket Ronnie? "No. Ronnie sometimes talks about packing it in and I would hate that. A final against Ronnie, in front of a big crowd... you can't get better than that."
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