The new Hurricane blows into town

John Higgins can take the title and the honour of being its youngest winner from Stephen Hendry at the World Snooker Championship, which starts today. Guy Hodgson reports
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The Independent Online
Mention the name Higgins in snooker and minds turn to a path of destruction, of nights when reputations were tarnished and, when generosity takes over, of breathtaking, wonderful play.

Where the Hurricane once wreaked his damage, however, a younger namesake now threatens on the table, if not off it. John Higgins, 19, is poised to carry the sobriquet beyond the original. Unrelated to Alex, just as Steve Davis has no link other than a sublime talent to Joe Davis, Higgins could become as potent a surname in the 1990s as it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

The younger Higgins goes into the Embassy World Snooker Championship, which starts today, as second favourite to take the title, a surprisingly high estimate considering the Scot would overtake his compatriot, Stephen Hendry, as the youngest winner if he did succeed. The fact that another 19-year-old, Ronnie O'Sullivan, lies just behind him in the bookmakers' odds underlines snooker's swing to youth.

Higgins, who was rated 51st in the world at the start of the season, has been elevated to a prospective champion by dint of his winning three ranking tournaments, the only person to have done this in a season other than Davis and Hendry. Even then they had to wait until their 20s to win it.

Higgins completed the trio by defeating O'Sullivan 9-6 in the final of the British Open in Plymouth on Sunday. "It's down to confidence now," he said, "because I can compete against anyone. I know now that I'm good and I don't need anyone telling me."

Dennis Taylor, the 1985 champion, was one of the first with access to the young ear, after practising with him when Higgins was 16. "I've always thought John has had the potential," he said. "In fact I thought he'd have come through earlier than he has. Ronnie O'Sullivan beat him to it, but I think John has the better all-round game of the two, even if Ronnie's potting power is astonishing."

Taylor, who will not be playing in the world championship for the first time since the event moved to The Crucible in 1977, believes the destination of this year's title is restricted to one of five men: Hendry, Higgins, O'Sullivan, Davis and Ebdon.

"Hendry is the most logical winner," he said of the defending champion, "basically because he's been there and having won it so many times is a big advantage. But whether he will win is debatable because he's lost it just slightly. In practice he's playing as well as ever but he's been beaten in a few matches and I think that's knocked a little bit of confidence out of him."

O'Sullivan he regards as the most potent danger to Hendry, particularly as they are due to meet at the quarter-final stage when the four-times champion may not have had time to recapture his best. Certainly Hendry could not get past the last eight in Plymouth last week, losing to John Parrott.

"Ronnie's the only player who can play a match as if he was on the practice table," Taylor said. "That's what everyone is striving to do, to take their practice form into match play. He plays as if he doesn't give a damn. He walks round the table and batters the balls like he's in a club."

In fact the only reseservation Taylor has about O'Sullivan is not the usual caveat about his safety play but that he abandons caution to the point where it becomes insulting to opponents. "They're professional snooker players," he said. "They all can play the game and occasionally you can come unstuck if you don't respect their abilities. Hendry and Davis have always done that."

Not that Taylor dismisses Davis's capacity to claim a seventh title. "Over a long distance he can still win it," he said. "Davis needs more chances than he used to but if he gets his act together, his tactical game is still brilliant. If he starts knocking a few breaks in he will be formidable."

Davis's most likely quarter-final opponent is Peter Ebdon, who defeated him at The Crucible in the first round in 1992. He also won the Benson and Hedges Irish Masters three weeks ago to underline his threat. Once noted as the possessor of a pony tail, his opponents now remark on his resilience.

Taylor said: "You have to admire him for his mental strength. He's amazing. He certainly prepares himself well and always gives himself a chance. He's a remarkably strong character."