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It seems remarkable that a country the size of Scotland can have the world’s top two competitors in any sport, but the rise of John Higgins has put him up on the board beside Stephen Hendry. Lorin McDougall hears how the young pretender intends to take the crown.

Being ranked Number Two in the world would normally ensure superstardom for a young sportsman in his home land. but not for snooker sensation John Higgins. By a twist of fate. the precociously gifted twenty-year-old from Wishaw finds his path to the summit blocked by fellow countryman Stephen Hendry. who long ago captured the hearts and minds ofthe Scottish public. Dennistoun‘s Alan McManus is also featured in the World Top Ten. proving that Scotland. the nation of King Kenny and Big Gav. is currently producing a rich stream of snooker talent.

‘Snooker in Scotland is great just now.‘ confirms Higgins. ‘There are several good players coming through after us three. including Chris Small from Edinburgh and Glasgow‘s Graeme Dott. I‘m sure there will be others in the next couple of years. although it's too early to say. Juniors and amateurs don‘t count in the pro game you‘ve got to earn your reputation on the professional table.’

This Higgins has done with a vengeance over the past fifteen months. His first major title. the Grand Prix in October 1994. was swiftly followed by two more in spring 1995. as he soared in meteoric fashion to eleventh position in the rankings. Victory at the German Open shortly before Christmas and a couple of runner-up spots have confirmed his status and place him second only to a certain five times world champion.

And what of the green baize legend whose crown he covets? ‘Stephen Hendry is a great champion. a brilliant player.‘ admits Higgins. ‘He never knows when he's beaten. doesn‘t feel pressure. and pots balls without a care in the world. He also produces a very high standard more consistently than anybody else. Others can do it sometimes. but he does it repeatedly. For example. I could win three frames with 70-plus breaks. but he‘d win seven. Over the long matches especially. you have to be at the top of your fortn to beat him whereas he could play slightly below his best and still win.‘

Having avoided each other in competition until this season. the Scots have met three times recently with mixed results for Higgins: ‘l lost 9—5 in Reading and 9—1 in Preston and didn't push him at all. but I played a lot better in Birmingham earlier this month when winning 5—4. It‘ll be great to play him several more times this season and. barring disasters. we should be ranked one and two by the end of it.‘

Although Higgins relishes the prospect of defending his British and International Open titles this spring, all roads lead to the daunting Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. home of the World Championships. This SCVCI‘ilCCli-(lily endurance test. monopolised by Steve Davis in the 80s and Hendry in the 90s. culminates in a best—of—35 frames final on 5--(i May.

‘lt‘s a big thing in evcrybody's mind.‘ says Higgins. "There are double ranking points and money at stake. so it‘s the best tournament in the world. I‘ve only

‘I’ve always played snooker because I love the game. The money is great and I can go into shops and afford all sorts of

extras, but it’s the thought of winning

trophies that spurs me on.’

played once at the Crucible and was hammered by Alan McManus. I didn‘t like it at all last year. but this time I‘ll go there a few days before the tournament. soak up the atmosphere and see what happens.

‘Apart from Stephen. I believe I‘m better than everybody else,‘ he states. without belittling the challenge from elsewhere. ‘Ronnie ()‘Sullivan and Peter Ebdon are great talents. as are Ken Doberty and James Wattana. A host of players. ten perhaps. could win arty tournament. which is good for snooker. Hendry wins his fair share. but it's not like Davis in

John Higgins: ‘Apart from Stephen Hendry, I belleve I'm better than everybody else’

the 80s when it was a huge surprise if he didn't win.‘

From humble beginnings. Higgins has come a long way. The man who at seven years old played with his brother on dad's half-size table and watched his hero Davis on television has himself become a world- beater. This season alone. he has eamed £132,000 in prize money. riches seldom enjoyed in recession-hit Lanarkshire. yet he remains refreshingly down to eanh.

‘l've always played snooker because I love the game.‘ he says. ‘The money is great and I can go into shOps and afford all sorts of extras. but it's the thought of winning trophies that spurs me on. People who know tne will tell you I've not changed at all. not one bit.‘

Also unchanged is his passion for football and. while practising for the Welsh Open and Benson & Hedges Masters (where he meets Hendry in the opening round). Higgins discussed a rivalry every bit as compelling as his and Hendry's: ‘Celtic have a better chance of winning the title than they did a few weeks ago; hopefully Rangers will crack under the pressure.’ There's already been a home slip-up against Hearts at lbrox. So, as pretenders to long-held thrones. what will the conclusion oftwo major sporting events hold in store for Celtic FC and John Higgins?

The Regal Welsh Open is in Newport between Wed 3/ Jun—S1113 Feb. The Benson ({- Hezlges .‘llusters is at Wentblev and (m BBC television between Sim 4—H I’eb.

The List 26 Jan-8 Feb 1996 83