Snooker: Higgins the protege leads the youth movement

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The Independent Online
IT IS NOT unknown for a prominent person to sow the seeds of his or her downfall, it is almost a cliche. Alcohol, sex, drugs or power, the fatal instruments are diverse. In Stephen Hendry's case the weapon was tolerance.

Perhaps Hendry suspected John Higgins would one day become his nemesis - there are vicarious delights to be derived in a protege's progress after all - and cultivated the youngster who used to pester him for practice games in Stirling. It is unlikely he expected to be overhauled quite so quickly, however. There will be little pleasure lurking within the six- times world champion this morning.

Hendry had set his sights on being the world No 1 throughout the 1990s but has been displaced by Higgins, whose defeat of holder Ken Doherty in the final of the Embassy World Championship late on Monday edged him just ahead of his erstwhile master. Now the apprentice has taken over.

"When I first turned pro I practised with Stephen a lot," Higgins said, "and he used to give me some right hammerings day after day. I'm not like the rest, I know first hand just how good he can be. At the time you don't think it's doing you any good, but it helped me immensely.''

Higgins, from Wishaw in Scotland, is only the third player since Steve Davis began his monopoly in the early 80s to be the world No 1, and there was a unmistakable sense of change at the Crucible. Hendry, 29, now represents the old guard; the 22-year-old champion the new.

"The game's in a healthy state in terms of the number of new faces coming through," Doherty, 28, said after his 18-12 defeat, "kids who aren't afraid to perform on the big stage. It's getting tougher, not easier. I'm becoming an old man in this game now, playing all these 19 and 20 year olds.''

Higgins, who has won four tournaments this season and is in the vanguard of this youth movement, had a standard introduction to the game. Television sparked an interest that was fanned when his parents bought him his first snooker table as child. At 14 he was learning at the feet of Alan McManus, now ranked eighth in the world, in Glasgow before moving to Stirling where Hendry regularly hammered him into shape.

Higgins became part of Ian Doyle's Cuemasters management stable but left because he felt he was lacking attention, such was the focus on Hendry. At the time the parting was not particularly harmonious, but relations have been rebuilt to an extent that Doyle described his former charge as "one of the nicest young men you could wish to meet''.

Nice, but tough too. You do not record 14 centuries in the world championships - a record - unless you can set your mind on a rigid course. It spoke volumes for his purpose, too, that he could race ahead in the final session after Doherty had eroded his early advantage to 13-11.

The crucial frame was the 28th when Doherty was in the colours but went in-off after potting the brown. "I didn't mean to hit the brown that hard," he said, "but I was trying to get the rest out of the way and I got into the white too much. If I had won that frame and gone into the dressing room for the mid-session break at 15-13 I'd still been in with a chance. At 16-12 I had to win the last session 6-0 or 6-1.''

Instead Higgins finished it swiftly, reaping a pounds 220,000 first prize plus pounds 9,500 for the highest break. "I am surprised to have got here so quickly," he said. "I thought I was capable of winning the world title but not now.''

Once he realised he was ahead of his schedule emotions flooded over him and he completed his final century in some turmoil. Like his namesake, Alex - who he is not related to in terms of blood or temperament - he collected the trophy with tears running down his cheeks.

Can he now dominate the start of the new millennium like Hendry had done? "No," he replied. "The competitions too strong. I'm capable of taking more than my fair share of tournaments but no-one could win everything like Stephen. I'm 22 and I don't think I'll go backwards, I'll go forwards and people will have to improve with me. I'm sure the standard will be better in 10 years.''

Snooker has moved on so much in the last decade that that thought is frightening. It is a much quoted statistic but worth repeating: Alex Higgins managed just 45 centuries in competition in a long career, John Higgins, who has been professional for less than six years, has managed over 100.

EMBASSY WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP Sheffield (Final): J Higgins (Sco) bt K Doherty (Irl) 18-12. Frame scores (Higgins first): 34-73, 80-20, 86-7, 71-1, 113- 0, 73-52, 130 (130 break)-0, 0-89, 0-112 (112 break), 7-66, 18-97, 66-2, 103 (103 break)-4, 86-5, 138-0, 70-82, 39-90, 89-0, 6-61, 130 (130 break)-0, 0-90, 1-99, 58-48, 44-82, 60-14, 128 (128 break)-0, 71-58, 41-78, 66-16, 119 (118 break)-8.