Snooker: Higgins' world title points to new era

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The Independent Online
TIME will tell whether snooker has entered a new era, but it felt like it last night when John Higgins won his first Embassy World Championship. By doing so he overtook Stephen Hendry as the world No 1.

The world title, achieved when he defeated the reigning champion Ken Doherty 18-12, was remarkable enough for a 22-year-old Scot who has been a professional for less than six years. The No 1 position was a milestone - since the early 1980s only Hendry and Steve Davis have been at the sport's pinnacle.

Indeed the records tumbled into Higgins' lap. During the final he recorded five centuries to take his tally for the tournament to 14, superceding Hendry's previous mark of 12, and the pounds 220,000 first prize made him only the fourth player to pass the half a million mark in a season. Again Hendry, and Davis were being matched, along with Jimmy White.

"I take over as No 1 from possibly the greatest player of all time," Higgins said. "Stephen Hendry was one of the reasons why I'm here tonight because I practised with him for a few years. Even though I was getting beaten 19-1 every time I knew it was doing me good. I've a lot to thank him for."

As the match resumed yesterday afternoon, the day held possibilities for both men, with Higgins aiming for the world and Doherty hoping to become the first modern champion to keep the title at a first defence.

Higgins was favourite after establishing a 10-6 lead on the first day. For much of it he was resplendent, knocking in big breaks from almost every Doherty error but there was still an element of "what might have been" because he slumbered in the early evening to allow his opponent to mitigate a potentially match-deciding position.

Ian Doyle, Doherty's manager, felt Doherty's experience gleaned from his win in the final against Hendry last year would be crucial. Instead his comment, "John's style is to smack you in the face and leave you cold on the deck", proved more prescient.

Not at first though. "The Wizard of Wishaw" was how the compere, Alan Hughes, introduced Higgins, but for much of the afternoon he appeared to have lost his wand. He began assertively enough, making an early break of 39 only to lose position and the first frame thanks to Doherty's visits to the table that yielded 20, 1 and 69 points.

Higgins repulsed that with a break of 89 to take the second frame only for Doherty to win another edgy battle with a 55 to make the score 11- 8. The final riposte before the mid-session break was left to Higgins, however, with a 130.

Doherty, much better than the previous day, had to make inroads into a lead that was proving resilient even though he was playing the better snooker and when he won three of the next four frames he had done just that, making the score 13-11.

"If I'd been four frames ahead I'd have waited for Ken to come at me," said Higgins. "But with only two frames it was like we were level. I just went for it." He came out flying.

Doherty made one slip and Higgins swooped, the first time he had won the first frame of a session. In the next the Scot cleared the table for a 128, his 13th century of the tournament surpassing Hendry's record.

If that frame looked pivotal, then the next was doubly so. Doherty trapped Higgins into snookers and then appeared to have the frame at his mercy when in among the colours. When he potted the brown from the rest, however, the white rolled around the table and slowly fell into the middle pocket. The crowd, which was firmly in the Irish camp, gasped and Doherty's hopes were going with it because Higgins cleared the 22 points for a 71-58 success.

The match was slipping away from Doherty but he arrested the slide with the last frame before the mid-session break, making a break of 35. It proved to be merely a temporary respite. Higgins won what would be the penultimate frame 66-16 with a break of 33 and then raced over the line with yet another century.