Wednesday, September 26, 2012

John Higgins - Like a BOSS

There's lots of places you can find the draw for the 2012 Shanghai Masters, but this isn't one of them. To make sense of what I'm yammering about in this article, please consult Wikipedia here2012 Shanghai Masters

John Higgins: The CEO of bottle.
Photo by Monique Limbos
After John Higgins won the 2011 World Championship, defeating Judd Trump 18-15 from 7-10 down after the first day's play, Steve Davis pronounced him the greatest of all time--a statement that seemed rife with the heat of the moment, swayed by the tension of a close final and drew a bit of criticism for perhaps putting the cart before the horse. Although there are few true snooker fans that wouldn't put Higgins into the conversation for greatest of all time, most end up conceding that subjective title of ultimate prestige to Stephen Hendry for his tremendous record, or to Ronnie O'Sullivan, for his tremendous talent.

However, as one commentator (Phil Yates, I think--possibly Neal Foulds) pointed out, Hendry was a master of attacking snooker and, if faced with the prospect of a slower, more tactical frame, he would often become bogged down with the leaden pace of a more defensive contest, clearly less comfortable and less likely to win if the style of snooker wasn't to his liking. O'Sullivan is not dissimilar, but his patience for tactical frames seems to be more closely related to his psychological state than his disdain for any particular sort of snooker. We know that when Ronnie is on song, his safety is as good as anyone's and he can generally pot his way out of trouble and outscore his opponents before a tactical frame gets too drawn out. But John Higgins is armed with unmatched versatility in the game and it is that versatility that likely prompted Steve Davis's comments a little over a year ago.

Fluency in scoring is what paved the way for what appeared to be a smooth road to Judd Trump's third ranking title at the Shanghai Masters on the weekend and the sweet taste of revenge following his Crucible defeat to Higgins. When Trump led 5-0, he had out-scored John Higgins 510-78, with 50 of Higgins' points only coming in the fifth after Judd had knocked in 59 at the first available opportunity. The first sign of life from John came in the sixth frame with the sixth maximum break of his career. Surely there is no better way to pull a frame back in a match that seems to be getting away from you than to hit a 147. That said, it appeared to be a flash in the pan, as Judd took the next to lead 6-1 and finished the day with a healthy 7-2 lead, complete with commentators stressing how important it was for John to win that ninth frame, forever promulgating the significant difference between a five-frame gap and a gap of only three.

I don't know how it happened, but John Higgins came out for the second session ready to boss the table around and didn't seem to have much of an idea about the scoreline. He calmly and coolly made a more-than-enough 89 break in one visit to close the gap to 7-3. Then, with a visit in which he racked up 74 points in frame 11, it was 7-4. Then a break of 48 and a 30 in the twelfth made it 7-5. It was only then that Judd Trump began to sweat in his chair, having squandered the five-frame lead. Though still ahead, Higgins did not leave him a shot, which is no mean feat against the likes of Trump. A 76 break won John Higgins the thirteenth frame and a 71 brought the match all the way back from a one-sided best-of-19 affair, to a tense race to 3 frames for the title.

Judd Trump sweating bullets and missing table time.
Photo by Monique Limbos
At 7-7, when a scrappy fifteenth frame ended on the black, which Higgins ultimately doubled into the corner pocket with unwavering confidence, the writing was on the wall. Give Judd credit for a stunning century break to draw level at 8-8, but when he next came back to the table, he was 64-0 down with 67 on. He had two chances to clear up and win it, the second culminating in a missed black off the spot that left him needing two snookers and, more significantly, he returned to his chair dejected and red-faced with self-deprecation. At 9-8, it became a war of attrition--an endurance test of emotion. In these tense environments, you bet against John Higgins at your own peril. The start of frame 18 was loaded with trepidation and apprehension in the performance's of both players and it was clearly no one would win it in a single visit. Each safety that left John Higgins a long red resulted in Judd shaking his head and fearing the worst.

2012 Shanghai Master Champion
Photo by Monique Limbos
He led the frame by seven points with one red remaining and maturely refused a pot in favour of playing a snooker in behind the yellow. Higgins played a heavy swerve shot to escape and the red rebounded off the black into the pocket for another body blow. A three-cushion cocked-hat double on the yellow several shots later looked like the end for Trump. As luck would have it (as it so often does in these circumstances), Trump was able to pull a very challenging frame out of the fire after Higgins went in-off on the pink, needing only it and the black to win the title. However, a decider was on the cards and by then, Judd was a bag of nerves, still able to knock in a long red by itself, but when it came to stringing together a frame-winning break, he was running slightly out of position throughout the visit and it came to an end at 36. His safety left John Higgins a long red and, with absolute aplomb, he cued it into the centre of the top left corner and made 61 for the match. Unbelievable.

It is these performances and the fact that he has demonstrated this sort of comeback before that makes him among the greatest. In 2010, Higgins also trailed 2-7, and then 5-9, to Mark Williams and won the last five frames of the UK Championship to defeat him 10-9.  More than a string of historical comebacks and a trophy case of accolades, John Higgins is also just a great player to watch. He doesn't have the flare and box office appeal of other players and for that reason, he may not be as entertaining on the basis of any one frame. However, to appreciate John Higgins, you have to see him in a match situation.

Watch this lengthy sequence of safety shots as Mark Allen is left needing snookers to draw their Premier League match. As they play one excellent safety after another, the tension in the arena builds and this is a great example of what professional snooker is all about and why I love it so. It's also another fine example of the unshakable composure of John Higgins and his relentless grip on the match which he absolutely refuses to let go of.

When he finally pots the green, that seals it and we know the match is over. However, John Higgins also knows the rules and just to assert his dominance, he drains the long brown right into the heart of the pocket and does the same to blue and pink as if there was no chance of ever missing them. What's that, Mark? You want to play on needing three snookers on the brown? Too bad. Pop-pop-pop! Like a BOSS. 

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