John Higgins boasts a fine Crucible record
John Higgins boasts a fine Crucible record

World Championship snooker analysis as John Higgins prepares for latest Crucible bid

Ahead of this year's World Snooker Championship, Richard Mann discusses the title prospects of four-time winner John Higgins who has lost in five major finals already this season.

By the time a professional snooker player reaches 46 years of age, they are sure to have plenty of battle scars. There’s no getting away from that – no matter how good you are.

In the history of the game, few have been better than John Higgins. Ronnie O’Sullivan, perhaps Stephen Hendry, though many would debate that point.

But snooker is a bruising game, not physically but certainly mentally, and for all the many highs Higgins has enjoyed – four world titles top of the list – there have been some bitter defeats to swallow: consecutive World Championship final losses from 2017 to 2019, his reverse to Yan Bingtao in the Masters final of 2021, and five defeats in finals this season alone, three when only a single frame from victory.

There have been other bad ones before, of course, but with a modern snooker calendar which can sometimes feel like a hamster wheel, it’s hard to escape the snooker bubble: the same faces, the same conversations, the same journalists who can’t resist asking about that latest loss that really must've hurt. Oh yes, it hurts alright.

I asked Higgins the same question on the eve of the 2018 World Championship and even though a year had passed since his loss in the previous year's final to Mark Selby, the Scot was quick to admit it was still a match that haunted him.

Shaun Murphy exclusive

Shaun Murphy at the Crucible

‘It hurts, yeh it does, particularly when you’re on your own and you have time to start thinking about different things,’ he said in the tone of a man who hadn't yet let go.

It was the first time I’d interviewed Higgins, and unusually for me, I instantly liked him. But given his demeanour, I wasn’t surprised that he’d endured such a poor season and I gave him little chance in Sheffield in the coming weeks. ‘He isn’t coming back from that any time soon,’ I thought as I headed for my train.

Just over two weeks later and Higgins lined up in the final having first beaten Judd Trump in a quarter-final up there with the very best matches I’ve ever seen, before then outpointing the coming man, Kyren Wilson, in the last four. In the final against Mark Williams Higgins would again fall on his sword, but this was an epic played out between two of the greatest ever. No need for regret here.

Higgins had shown, like so many times before, that he possesses a remarkable ability to come back from adversity. Not only that, but he once again underlined his love for the Crucible Theatre and the World Championship. It should have come as no surprise, then, to see Higgins reach the final again 12 months later, this time Judd Trump producing the sort of performance that would have been too much for anyone to resist.

Judd Trump is snooker's world champion
Judd Trump winning his first world title

A brilliant, bloodless victory at the 2021 Players Championship saw Higgins return to the winners’ enclosure, but that came after a galling loss in the final of the Masters when seemingly in control of the match until the latter stages.

That was certainly one that got away, but sadly, it’s a trend that has continued this term, as Higgins has produced some of his best snooker for many a year to reach the finals of the Northern Ireland and English Opens, only to surrender 8-6 leads over Mark Allen and Neil Robertson. He would later lead Trump 3-0 in the Champion of Champions final, but he was outplayed thereafter. That wasn't the case against Robertson and he remarked afterwards that he felt he no longer had the game to beat the ‘top boys’.

Those comments raised more than a few eyebrows, but Luca Brecel then blitzed him in the final of the Scottish Open before the inevitable dip in form came and we were left wondering whether his race for the season had been run.

Not quite, but those words from Higgins would seemingly come to fruit at the Tour Championship, when the Scot moved into an apparently unassailable 9-4 lead in the final until narrowly missing a tricky yellow that would have in all likelihood sealed a brilliant victory and sweet revenge over Robertson. When the yellow refused to drop, Robertson grabbed his lifeline with both hands.

What was to come was barely believable and made for painful viewing as Higgins, the great champion, unravelled in front of our very eyes. Robertson played his part magnificently, but Higgins fell apart and the red he missed in the deciding frame was, in his own words, ‘unforgivable.’

Neil Robertson and John Higgins before the final of the Tour Championship
Neil Robertson and John Higgins before the final of the Tour Championship

Ever gracious at the end of the match, Higgins was quick to heap praise on Robertson, but the Australian’s ‘sorry mate’ when the players shook hands said it all. This was a crushing loss for Higgins in a match he should never have lost. Another for the list at the end of a long, frustrating campaign that has seen him play so well, yet win nothing and suffer heartbreak after heartbreak.

If he looked a weary, broken man at the end of the Tour Championship, and to my eye he really did, it is perfectly understandable. You certainly wouldn’t be backing him to win a fifth World Championship just a matter of weeks later, would you?

But this is Higgins we are talking about. The nerveless assassin whose trademark clearances from way behind have seen him win countless frames others wouldn’t even have a chance of stealing. This is John Higgins, four-time world champion, confirmed Crucible lover, and a man who has rocked back from many a big punch in the past.

Higgins has certainly taken some devastating blows this season, but I’ve been here before, at the point when I’m writing him off on the eve of a World Championship. I’ve learnt my lesson. After all, this is John Higgins we are talking about.

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