Higgins' chance to top the world

Guy Hodgson looks forward to snooker's World Championship, which begins today, and (right) talks to the sport's Svengali
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Only tennis, you would think, could contrive a ranking system that allowed Thomas Muster, someone who could walk down Wimbledon's high street without causing a stir, to be the world's No 1. You would be wrong. Snooker has been adjusting its figures, too, and not necessarily for the better.

Had John Higgins, 20, won the final of the British Open in Plymouth last week he would be top of the provisional pile, a statistical quirk given that anyone who has a passing knowledge of snooker would place Stephen Hendry at the pinnacle. If the former proceeds further than the latter in the Embassy World Championships, starting at the Crucible in Sheffield today, then the supplanting will be complete.

It represents rapid progress for Higgins, who began the season ranked 11th and who still suffers identity problems. The situation is changing as word spreads, yet the name Higgins still invokes the words "Hurricane" and "mayhem" in most people rather than "John." Nevertheless Higgins has won five tournaments in the last two years, most recently the International Open in February.

As Ronnie O'Sullivan, a youngster whose own prodigious talent has been eclipsed by Higgins' rise, put it in Plymouth: "There are only two people who have a realistic chance of winning the world championship, Hendry and Higgins."

Hendry represents one "if" threatening the theory that Higgins will become the youngest world champion but there is another one. Last year he arrived in Sheffield amid much hype and left it pretty rapidly after being thrashed 10-3 by his fellow Scot, Alan McManus. Then he described the venue, the Crucible, as claustrophobic and, if he was hemmed in during the first round, he is not likely to find more room in the later rounds.

McManus is the probable opponent in the second round this time, while the draw has O'Sullivan, a wild canon liable to demolish anyone on the the right day, likely to be lurking in the quarter-final.

As for Hendry, just about the last thing that the rest of the game needed was him with a grievance. Two years ago he won the championship while nursing a broken left arm, so, irking him by installing a new ranking assessment that he feels devalues the No 1 position is less than good news for those in his path to a fifth successive title.

He argues that, while no one wants to see a return to former days where the top 16 were guarded by the system, there was little wrong with the current one that allowed the rapid progress of Higgins, O'Sullivan and Peter Ebdon while still making reference to past achievements. Hendry, by the way, has won more than 50 tournaments.

He has another incentive, too, because a win in Sheffield on 6 May would put Hendry level with Steve Davis, with six world titles.

In some that would invoke extra, unnecessary concern; in Hendry it will merely reinforce a determination that makes steel look pliable. "The greater the pressure, the better I seem to play," he said this week. "I've always said it's my ambition to overtake Steve Davis and being so near to catching him is an extra spur."

Higgins on the verge of topping the rankings, Hendry poised to pull level with Davis; the mood that an era is coming to an end at The Crucible over the 16 days of the Championship is unmistakable. It could become more so if the irresistible trend towards youth continues.

Davis is the second seed but that position is a false one and he enters the tournament against Willie Thorne with his chances regarded as being at their lowest since his second Crucible appearance in 1980. He reached the final of the Benson and Hedges Irish Masters last month but the trend was more apparent in his defeat to Mark Johnston-Allen in Plymouth, the third time this season he has failed to get past the opening round in a ranking event.

If Davis will keep his privileges as a member of the top 16 no matter what he does in Sheffield, the same cannot be said of Jimmy White, Terry Griffiths and Thorne. White, the eternal bridesmaid, has had a place among the elite since 1982 but is flirting with expulsion. Griffiths and Thorne are probably beyond salvation.