Thursday 23 November 2017

Snooker: Higgins on song after nervy start

John Higgins plays a shot in his first round game against Stephen Lee. Photo: PA
John Higgins plays a shot in his first round game against Stephen Lee. Photo: PA

John Skilbeck at the crucible

John Higgins began what could be an emotional journey to a fourth Crucible title with a hint of early anxiety -- followed by a masterclass.

The champion of 1998, 2007 and 2009 looked to be carrying tension in the opening stages of his clash with Stephen Lee, but three centuries after the mid-session interval showed why the Scot is the man they all fear this year.

He leads 6-3 overnight and will surely tomorrow book a clash with Rory McLeod, the 40-year-old coach of Qatar's national team who earned his place in the second round with a 10-6 win over Ricky Walden. Higgins made a greater impact on last year's World Championship after his shock second-round exit to Steve Davis, as he became caught up in a newspaper sting which put his career in jeopardy.


On the morning of the final, all the focus was on Higgins rather than title contenders Neil Robertson and Graeme Dott, and the Scot was served with a six-month ban in September.

The punishment, backdated to May, was handed for breaching rules around betting, but the most serious charges relating to fixing frames in future matches were dropped. Higgins has been welcomed back to the tour, and since his return in November the 35-year-old has won five times already.

A sixth trophy could be less than a fortnight away, and what a moment that would provide. Not only has he endured torment in the past 12 months, he also lost his father, John Snr, to cancer in February. Sheffield's welcome for Higgins was generous, and after dropping the opening frame he began to move through the gears.

Breaks of 56 and 70 helped him to a 3-1 interval lead, but it was after the short break that the Crucible saw the best of Higgins, with runs of 132, 101 and 131 showing it is not just Ronnie O'Sullivan capable of such destructive form.

Higgins road-tested his form for the trip to Sheffield by routing Stephen Hendry 5-0 at the Scottish Professional Championship last week and it is not only the sponsors who make him the man to beat at the Crucible -- his fellow Scotsman Dott sees it the same way.

"It's fair to say John Higgins would be favourite, because of the way he's been playing," Dott said, after beating Mark King 10-7. Dott held off King, who set the highest break of this year's championship with 138, to clinch a second-round match against Ali Carter.

Martin Gould ended Marco Fu's campaign in the first round for the second year in a row, coming from 6-3 behind to win 10-8 and set up a clash with Neil Robertson's conqueror Judd Trump tomorrow evening.

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