Wednesday 18 September 2019

Beauty doesn't always survive a treacherous red to the middle pocket

The Couch

'Ding Junhui was another brilliant-but-brittle victim of the Crucible last week.' Photo: PA
'Ding Junhui was another brilliant-but-brittle victim of the Crucible last week.' Photo: PA

Tommy Conlon

The world has always been magnetised by beauty; the realms of art, commerce and media have worshipped it in all its guises for millennia.

But the kingdom of sport, if it gets half a chance, will bury beauty in every grave it can find.

The essential difference is between doing and being. In art, beauty just has to be; it is enough that it exists. Sport will showcase beauty too, but it is generally the frame not the picture. First, you must do. It is utilitarian at heart. Its core requirements are functional and practical, not aesthetic.

Sport's word for beauty is talent. And it is a golden rule that talent is not enough. It must be productive too. It is merely a raw material. If it is to be useful, it must adapt to the industrialised machinery of competition. If it cannot adapt, it will be discarded.

Many is the rough diamond that looked priceless upon discovery, but was deemed to be a dud after being polished and put to work. In the backlot of the great sporting arena, way beyond the floodlights and the car parks, is the vast slagheap where all these diamonds are buried, a dark mountain of talent that couldn't conform to the implacable conditions of competition.

The grading process is more generous than this sounds, because the sporting empire runs from amateur play in village fields to Olympic stadia and World Cup finals. Participants with minuscule amounts of natural talent but abundant enthusiasm will find some niche or other on the spectrum. Those with extravagant natural gifts and a small measure of determination will be accepted somewhere, according to the laws of supply and demand and sundry other circumstances. But of course it is those rare specimens who combine vast natural ability with a similar work ethic and competitive courage who become the elite in every generation.

This perpetual tension between the seductions of talent and the criteria of competition is one of sport's oldest stories. It has become over time a sort of morality play, a parable on the eternal struggle between beauty and pragmatism, between surface and substance, between being and doing.

The higher up the food chain, the more visible this conflict becomes. It is not always a black-and-white drama, a cowboy movie between goodies and baddies. But if forced to choose, the coaches, scouts and managers will generally opt for the solid citizen over the brilliant-but-brittle alternative.

These gatekeepers are all too familiar with the range of personality types that their trade produces. They've been burned too often by the magical but unreliable performer. In the old westerns, the good guy always wins; in sport, it is character ultimately that prevails.

Every code offers this fable for consumption. Snooker is one of the games that amplifies it better than most. Here this universal story becomes intimate. The stage on which it is presented measures 11 feet 8.5 inches by 5 feet 10. We therefore get to see the struggle in close up and slow motion.

Last week's World Championship match between Judd Trump and John Higgins served up an ideal reincarnation of this ancient Greek drama.

Seven years ago at the same tournament, Trump exploded onto the sporting consciousness with a series of displays that were scandalous in their audacity. Just as Hurricane Higgins had done in the 1970s and Ronnie O'Sullivan in the mid-1990s, Trump's electrifying talent was seen to be taking the game to a new frontier. He was potting balls from hitherto inconceivable positions. He continued his freewheeling ways into final where he was finally worn down by his same opponent last week.

Winner of four world titles, John Higgins is a master technician, the surgeon general of the baize; he was long ago anointed an all-time great. In terms of aesthetics he is not in the same league as Trump. In terms of competitive courage, nerve under pressure and strategic intelligence, Trump wouldn't be able to chalk the Scotsman's cue.

Trump was 21 in 2011. The world was his oyster then. He was the heir apparent, the champion-elect, the superstar waiting to be crowned. He is still waiting. As a boy wonder, he won the England under 15 national title at the age of 10; at 14 he became the youngest player in history to make a maximum 147 in competition.

But at the Crucible in Sheffield, year after year, he has run into the world of men; battle-hardened men who have taught him the cruel way that his glorious, gorgeous skill is not enough. They can tame it and they can beat it. For him it has been both a life lesson and a career lesson. There are scars all over his art now.

And now 28, he has lost much of his original innocence. His flamboyance has receded, his toughness has intensified. Higgins is almost 43, with the middle-aged spread to prove it. He looked beaten when Trump took an 11-9 lead on Wednesday night. The not-so-young pretender was showing every sign that he'd learned the lessons of all those traumatic defeats. He too was showing plenty of bottle under the cosh.

But Higgins ultimately showed more. He reeled off the next three frames. Trump produced some tremendous shots on the colours to take it to a deciding frame. Higgins got in first and, as Steve Davis said on commentary, "went for the throat". He was now an undertaker administering the last rites, again, to the artist in the arena. Trump was devastated.

Ding Junhui was another brilliant-but-brittle victim of the Crucible last week. He was asked afterwards if he still believes he can win the world title one day. "Belief is belief," replied the Chinese man, with Confucian fatalism, "but matches are truth."

Beauty is truth too, as the old saying goes, but sometimes it just won't survive a treacherous red to the middle pocket.


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