Higgins knuckles down to the grind of fame game

The first time John Higgins met Alex Higgins, the Hurricane left his mark. The young Scot had just lost to Jimmy White and to get a word of consolation from the great man would have made a difference. Instead he got: "If you don't learn to play with side, you'll never be in my class."

Those with a generous spirit would ascribe Higgins' words as a helpful hint or maybe a gentle nudge towards the toughness required to survive at snooker's top table. John Higgins will have none of it. "I thought he would come up and say 'bad luck, you played well'. He was one of my heroes, someone I looked up to, and he was slagging me off. I think he was wary because another Higgins was coming along."

Higgins, 21, has long since moved out of Alex's controversial shadow. Indeed, with Peter Ebdon already history he represents the most likely player to wrench the World Championship from Stephen Hendry's grasp. Last night, he was facing the world No 113, Graham Horne, after which Tony Drago and either Ken Doherty or Steve Davis are likely to provide the opposition.

It is a path to the semi-finals that is well within the world No 2's compass and yet the expectation placed on his head is less than it has been for two years. In 1995 and 1996 he arrived as Hendry's great danger, but lost to Alan McManus (10-3) and Ronnie O'Sullivan (13-12). The pressure is on others.

"I've left Sheffield twice feeling deeply disappointed and I don't think people expect me to win it now," he said. "The first time I just sat there watching Alan thinking all the things a fan does. You know 'this is where my heroes have played', or 'isn't the Crucible small'. My mind wasn't on the job at all.

"Last year I lost a a bad match to Ronnie. I was 10-6 ahead and you shouldn't lose to anyone from that position. It hurt me a lot. The way I was playing I really thought I was going to win the title."

The 1996-97 season has been a strange one for Higgins. He says his snooker is far short of the mark he knows he can achieve and yet he won the European Open in Malta in March and has earned more than pounds 220,000 in prize-money. This on top of changing his cue at the turn of the year.

Golfers might be fickle with their clubs, but snooker players regard the tool of their trade as an extension of their arms and change them with great reluctance. Higgins had owned his since he was a child, but years of adding bits and replacing the tips had taken their toll and eventually the wrench had to be made. On the cue's first outing, Hendry was beaten.

It was not the only change. "When you are losing first- round matches it hurts a lot," he said. "You dismiss it as everyone goes through a bad patch, but I felt that something was wrong. Changing the cue is probably one of the best things I've done. I was experimenting too much, having bits chopped off or added on. It was silly. At the end of the day I wasn't putting in the length and quality of practice I should've been doing.

"I was enjoying myself too much, going out at most weekends having a laugh, which, as a professional sportsman in the middle of a season, you can't afford to do. You need to be a different person, a different breed to become No 1. You need tunnel vision, stay in every night, practise all the time."

Hendry, of course, is his exemplar. "Stephen's had a baby and that has changed him a little, but before that his life was snooker, snooker, snooker. If I've been out the night before I'd wake up next morning thinking maybe I can't be bothered going to the snooker hall. That's maybe the difference between me and him. He'd be at the club on a Sunday morning.

"If I'm going to beat Stephen I'll have to work as hard. You have a few years after snooker when I can enjoy myself. I have to put that on the back burner."

Since January, Higgins has put in the hours on the practice table and if his first-round defeat at the British Open three weeks ago was not encouraging, it might be attributed to the emphasis he places on the World Championship. He knows, he says, that his best form would put Hendry within his range.

"Stephen did not play that well last year and he still won," he said. "Which shows he's head and shoulders ahead of us. I had the privilege of practising with him every day when I was younger and I know just how good he is. We're friends off the table, enemies on it."

As for Alex Higgins, the word "friend" seems unlikely to ever apply. "I expect he would rather be in my position now," he said with a snort. If he wins the World Championship on 5 May you can safely assume John Higgins is right.