Snooker: Higgins in easy frame of mind

Snooker: Reigning world champion relishes Crucible atmosphere while great rival is in predatory mood once again
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The Independent Online
ANYONE WITH the name "John Higgins" on a betting slip would have squirmed with anxiety. "I've not really been practising," the world snooker champion said. "I've been going to the club and just going through the motions." The candour was a surprise as much as the sentiment.

If Jimmy White or Ronnie O'Sullivan had said it no one would have batted an eyelid, but Higgins? Given that no first-time winner has successfully defended the Embassy World Championship at the Crucible, it was almost as if he was surrendering his title even before he bent over a table.

Or it might have been his way of distributing the load before he embarks on a 17-day slog. Maybe he needed to be an underdog in his own mind again.

Higgins starts his defence against Northern Ireland's Gerard Greene in Sheffield this morning as unquestionably the best snooker player in the world. Since winning at the Crucible last May he has collected the UK Championship, the Masters and two other titles and in any other sport retention of his title would seem likely. Not snooker.

Even Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry, the greatest players of the modern era, could not do it and Higgins admits he will never dominate in the manner they did. History says he cannot win this tournament and his weary complaint about practice hardly contradicted it. Yet with him it could be different.

Although Higgins is not in the Hendry class when it comes to hard labour (Hercules came second in that contest), he is a worker. However, he understands when practice is dulling his game. His admission that he was bored two weeks ago can be assessed as a sign of weakness but it might also speak of strength. He has gone his own way before.

At 15 he won the Scottish Under-16 and Under-19 titles, a feat that was even beyond the young Hendry and, when he joined Hendry's manager, Ian Doyle, his passage to the top of the game looked likely to be as smooth as it was well-trod. Instead there was a parting of the ways that caused minds to wonder whether Higgins had the discipline of a truly great player.

Last year's 18-12 win over Ken Doherty in the final at the Crucible answered that, but also proved that Higgins might not always conform. However, he is a good judge of what is right for him.

"Stephen was very, very single-minded," Higgins said, "and all his life revolved round snooker but I'm a little bit different. I have to be. I can't give 100 per cent to snooker because I'm close to my family, I've got a girlfriend, I like to go out with the boys, I like enjoying my free time. I'm probably not as zoned in.

"I have to strike a balance. I need to get away from snooker, too. I need breaks to recharge my batteries and come back a fresher, better player."

Higgins, 23, hit a happy compromise between freshness and lack of preparation last year and he will know better if he has located it again, and has a chance of bucking precedent, this morning.

"Ken Doherty and Joe Johnson have come closest to adding a second title straight after the first by reaching the final and it's an ambition, no question," he said. "I'd love to do it because it's one of the things left in snooker for me to achieve."

The suggestion that most challenges have already succumbed to Higgins' talent will come as a surprise to those who took notice of him only last year, but he is already third on the all-time list of ranking tournament winners behind Davis and Hendry. He is the world No 1 for at least another season, and has career earnings approaching pounds 2m.

Last year's win was not so much a bolt from the blue spot as the last climb for the summit from a base camp that had been built at a very high altitude. In fact if Higgins had not taken time to warm to the Crucible he would probably have got there earlier.

"There's not much room," he said. "You're sat right next to your opponent and you can hear the crowd watching the other match. The first year or two I didn't really like it, I was being distracted but it grows and grows on you. Now I think there's not a tournament that comes close to it. The atmosphere is fantastic."

Recalling last year he says he can remember every point. "I'd beaten Stephen Hendry in the final of the British Open just before I came to Sheffield and I'd taken so many hammerings from him when I was young that to beat him gave me great confidence. I thought I might do well.

"The moment I thought I could win it was when I got past John Parrott in the quarter-finals. I'd never got past that stage before and the match was very, very tough, the hardest I had at the Crucible. But I was in the semi-finals and the one-table set-up. You know it's not going to be easy but it was a turning point."

Eight frames in succession burned off O'Sullivan in the semi-finals and in the final he lost the first frame but was never behind again.

"When I was clearing up in the last frame I could see my mum starting to cry, and it nearly set me off as well," he said. "I was very proud for my parents. They have both given me so much support over the years. It was a marvellous evening."

Higgins will re-enter the theatre of tears at 10am, the traditional grand entrance for the defending champion.

"If you lose on the first day it's a horrible feeling because you don't feel as though the championship has begun. I know I'm under pressure but that comes with being defending champion."

It is a pressure he would love to re-acquaint himself with next year.