Snooker: Higgins shows right balance

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By Guy Hodgson

THE advantage in snooker matches can shift with break-neck speed but it was difficult to see it toppling John Higgins from a balance of power in the final of the Embassy World Championships yesterday. After the first of four sessions he led Ken Doherty 6-2.

It was the most one-sided start to a final since Steve Davis ground John Parrott into the table, 18-3, in 1989. Doherty, the holder, looked listless and, for long spells, could barely pot two balls together. Higgins, meanwhile, was remorseless, rolling in big break after big break. By the end of the session, Doherty, was just hanging on, making a break of 89 to prevent the score reaching 7-1. A new era in snooker could be about to emerge.

While there have been world champions who have appeared from out of the blue, the top of the rankings list has been a true barometer of quality. It is 18 years since anyone other than Steve Davis or Stephen Hendry ruled the roost but Higgins will get there if he prevails at the Crucible.

Higgins has made it to eight finals this season - including the current one - and while he has won three titles it has still required an unlikely sequence of results to topple Hendry from the No 1 position. The six-times world champion had to lose in the first round and Higgins win. Jimmy White duly obliged, beating Hendry 10-4, and yesterday Higgins looked eminently looked capable of achieving his half of the bargain.

"I never thought I'd have the chance to knock Stephen off the top because I didn't expect him to lose in the first round," he said. "Since he lost I've been trying not to think about it too much. I'm not being big-headed but if I hadn't had problems with my cue in the past I would have been No 1 by now anyway."

Higgins is not big-headed at all. Indeed, he often mumbles rather than talks and is self- effacing rather than brash, but he is wholly confident once he gets a cue in his hand. His progress through the field here has been assured, impressing particularly against Ronnie O'Sullivan in the semi-finals.

O'Sullivan, us usual, was his own worst enemy, squandering numerous opportunities, but you could only admire the way Higgins ruthlessly exploited them, winning eight frames in succession at one point. One slip and he was in, increasing the agony of an opponent who knew he is capable of better.

"To win eight frames on the trot against a player of Ronnie's class was beyond my wildest dreams," he said. "It's the best session of snooker I've ever put together and that won the match for me. Ronnie just needed too much. It asked a lot of him to come back.

"On form, I'm the slight favourite for the title but I don't know how I'm going to come down from this high."

Doherty had a far more complex rite of passage to the final, having to take six out of seven frames to defeat Mark Williams 17-14. "I thought I'd blown it when Mark led 12-8," he said. "I don't know how I did it but I found something in reserve and that helped me relax for the final session. It's been a hard slog here but I'm not exhausted mentally or physically. In fact I feel elated."

He may have said that, and even believed it, but he did not play like he had energy left in the tank. All his matches in Sheffield - against Lee Walker, Stephen Lee, Matthew Stevens and Williams - have been drawn- out affairs and such contests have an effect. Yesterday, Doherty looked mentally exhausted.

In the first frame of the final, the champion missed several opportunities to win it at a canter. The result was a nervy 15-minute bout of mistakes that Doherty edged 73-34.

First blood to the Irishman, but while you would have expected Higgins to suffer doubts in his first final at the Crucible, he seemed, in fact, to be spurred on and he won the next six frames with breaks of 53, 35, 71, 66, 55 and 130.

A crucial frame was the sixth. Higgins shot to the front with a 55 but Doherty had it in his hands to overtake him when he had a break of 52 and was in the colours. A simple green into its own pocket rattled in the jaws, however, and Higgins nicked a frame he should have lost. Such a slip leaves scars and Higgins preyed on the damage with a break of 130 in the next, his 10th century of the tournament and a figure that has been bettered only twice before at the Crucible, by Hendry on both occasions.

Doherty was desperate to stem the flow and he managed it in the final frame of the session but the reaction of the crowd told its story. Their applause were very much of the sympathetic kind.