Snooker: From Russia with love
Should John Higgins successfully defend his title in the World Snooker Championship beginning on Saturday, one person likely to celebrate is a fearsome looking Russian woman called Olga.
In its traditional heartland, snooker is a somewhat beleaguered sport, but the forays into previously uncharted territory in Europe have created a new fan base, and at a tournament in Russia, the likeable, unassuming Englishman caught Olga's gimlet eye.
"She followed me from there to the Crucible, and then she followed me to Portugal," says Higgins, with an uneasy laugh. "I did think that I had a stalker for a while. But in Portugal, luckily, my wife was there to save me."
Did he need saving? "Well, she wanted to talk to me and she was a little bit scary. She's, erm, quite big. And you have those preconceived ideas about Russians, don't you?"
By now, we are both laughing at the notion of big Olga bearing down on him like a James Bond villainess. Maybe Olga will one day have a deep-screwing Dmitri, a safety-conscious Sergei, to root for. In the meantime, Higgins doesn't know whether she will be in Sheffield for this year's championship, but if you see him nervously scanning the audience when he steps out on Saturday, you'll understand why.
As for the more salient business of whether he's in the right kind of form to win his fourth world title, Higgins doesn't know the answer to that question either. "There's such little tournament play these days that it's hard to gauge. I think I've secured the number one spot for next year regardless of what happens in Sheffield, but the most recent tournament I won was last May."
Plainly, the sport has suffered from lacklustre management these last few years. But "lacklustre" is the last word anyone can apply to the former grand panjandrum of snooker, Barry Hearn, who is back running the show. My interview with Higgins takes place at the swanky RAC Club in London, to herald the imminent world championship, and when I arrive Hearn is already there, in his best bib and tucker, radiating his particular brand of charisma.
"Barry has a blueprint for the game," says Higgins. "He wants a lot more tournaments for less prize money. We've all got to get away from this idea that the big money's still around. It was fantastic when I came into snooker, when tobacco was throwing lots of money at it, and even when they fell away we thought others would come in because of all the TV exposure. But it didn't happen. And now we need to grow the sport again because if we don't, it might not be around in 10 years' time."
He insists that the world championship, however, has lost none of its sheen. "At the Crucible you're cocooned from all that," says Higgins. "For atmosphere there's nowhere else like it, except maybe Goffs in County Kildare, where they used to have the Benson & Hedges Irish Masters, in a ring where they sell horses. That was fantastic too."
If 34-year-old Higgins was horseflesh, he'd command a hell of a price in the Goffs ring. His comprehensive 18-9 defeat of Shaun Murphy in last year's final yielded his third world title (following wins in 1998 and 2007) and a firm place in the game's all-time elite; only eight other players have lifted the trophy more than once, but more significantly, only Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O'Sullivan and now Higgins have won three or more titles at the Crucible.
But he hasn't done it all on his own. During a break in last year's quarter-final, when he was 11-9 down to Mark Selby and facing elimination, Higgins received a text message from his wife Denise, who was back home in Scotland, in front of the telly. "She could sense that my body language wasn't right," he recalls. The message was unequivocal -- "Don't you bloody dare give this up without a fight" -- and it had the desired effect. Higgins rallied, and Selby was beaten.
Ironically, Denise can't monitor his body language as closely if she's actually in the auditorium; the three Higgins offspring see to that. "At home she can put a DVD on for them, but if she brings them to a final she's still looking after them. It was funny, because at last year's final I came out for the first session against Shaun Murphy, we had the customary handshake, and then the oldest one, Pierce, shouted, 'C'mon daddy!' And Shaun said, 'Oh look, he's playing the kiddie card on me already'. That got a big laugh, and it broke the tension."
On a more serious note, Higgins' battles with the demon drink have been well documented. In 2006 Higgins was ordered off a plane in Malta for being obviously inebriated. "It was embarrassing. We all enjoy a drink, but you can do it to excess sometimes. I don't do that now, but once the story's out, people add arms and legs to it, saying all sorts of things that aren't true.
"It was distressing for my wife. She was walking downstairs after just bathing the kids, and there was the press banging on the door."
Meanwhile, at Heathrow Airport, Higgins had stepped off a later flight from Malta into banks of photographers. "Honestly, I was looking behind me. I thought Madonna or someone must have been on the plane. But then I realised they were there for me. It was a storm in a tea cup, really, but in a way maybe even bad news is good for the sport. It keeps it in the public eye."
And what of the player who does more than any other to keep snooker in the public eye? Higgins has already told me that his advice to youngsters is always the same -- never play anyone you can beat, always ask the best player for a game -- but what is it like for him, a three-time world champion, when he watches O'Sullivan playing a brand of snooker that is beyond even him?
"I enjoy it. It's fantastic, seeing someone make the game look that ridiculously easy, but then you don't know how you're perceived in other players' eyes. And I know how hard Ronnie practises to make it look that easy on the eye. You see it in every sport. Roger Federer. Lionel Messi. But I wouldn't say Tiger Woods. To me he looks mechanical. I'd say Ernie Els."
Of course, Els would be an even wealthier man if his time hadn't coincided with that of Woods. Does Higgins feel the same about Rocket Ronnie? "No. Ronnie sometimes talks about packing it in and I would hate that. A final against Ronnie, in front of a big crowd ... you can't get better than that." (© Independent News Service)