JOHN HIGGINS admits he is experiencing a crisis of confidence as he heads into this week’s BetVictor Welsh Open.
Higgins has won 25 ranking events, including the Welsh title on three occasions, but a frustrating few months have left him fearing for his top 16 place – and his future.
The four-times world champion changed his cue after the UK Championship and is struggling to regain his best form. Worse still, one of snooker’s greatest ever pressure players is beginning to feel the heat in matches.
“I’m struggling at the moment,” Higgins told Inside Snooker. “I’ve been changing cues and not feeling great about practising. This is probably the most I’ve struggled in my career, not just playing wise but mentally as well. I feel like I’m getting angry at the table, and I never used to get like that.
“I feel as if it’s like I’m at a crossroads. It’s not enjoyable playing right now but the only way you can get out of it is by practising and trying to play your way out of it.
“I felt good with the previous cue. Something happened with the ferrule and it became larger than it was. I tried to get it back to how it was but it got messed up. After the UK Championship I decided to get a new cue and I’m trying to get used to it. It’s hard because you’re second guessing yourself on a lot of things and that’s when snooker is really difficult.
“This is the lowest I’ve ever been, and you begin to think to yourself that this is maybe the beginning of the end. You have a few mental scars and they seem to crop up. The last two defeats in the Masters, to Shaun Murphy last year and Mark Selby this season, they were tough. You begin to wait for things to go wrong. I used to see it in the older players when I was coming through and it’s not a nice feeling.
“I don’t know how you can correct it or stop it. Sometimes you think your time is up but I’m still fighting to stay there. The thing is, it’s a totally different way of playing snooker with so many tournaments. I play in my house now and I don’t really enjoy it because you feel as if you’re never leaving your own home. Players want to come over because the conditions are so good, but that means you never feel like you’re getting a break.
“It’s still the best time to be a snooker player if you’re younger. It’s just that at this time of my career it doesn’t suit me.”
Higgins was part of a golden generation of players who grew up during the UK snooker boom of the 1980s and turned professional in 1992, as one of many hundreds of hopefuls who chanced their arms when the game went open.
His contemporaries were Mark Williams, also struggling for form, and Ronnie O’Sullivan, who has played in fewer tournaments than his rivals these past two years but won successive world titles.
Higgins was the first of this holy trinity to become world champion and has also won three UK Championship titles and the Masters twice.
He began the current season with victory at the Bulgarian Open and a runners-up spot in the Wuxi Classic. However, results since have been disappointing.
“I try and put a brave face on it but it’s hard just now,” Higgins said. “I’ve never been the type of player who has always thought I’m this good or that good. I’ve always had to fight my way through. I’ve never been one to think I was great ten years ago and wish I was back at that standard. I just try my best whether that’s good enough or not.
“It’s getting harder and harder when you’re away. It’s the manner of the defeats when you’re away from your family when you start thinking whether you need this, but then you just get back on the table and you realise you do love the game, and you keep on playing it.
“Ronnie has been able to pick and choose because he’s had the second seeding position as world champion. With my ranking, I might have to qualify for the World Championship – and I don’t want that. I’m fighting for every point. I can’t be picking and choosing and then needing to do well in the World Open or the Welsh.
“With the new money list system it might be different. You might be able to plot your way a bit more easily. For vanity’s sake you don’t want to drop out of the top 16. Staying in and also getting in new tournaments like the Champion of Champions is what you want.”
A question unthinkable five years ago arises: is there now too much snooker?
“Yes, I think there’s too much,” Higgins said. “But it’s my own fault, because my wife says I should pick and choose my tournaments, but you have to be in certain ranking bands. I don’t feel I can get myself ready for certain important tournaments because I’m flying here, there and everywhere. But that’s how snooker is now and you have to just bite the bullet and get on with it.”
There are even more matches to play now all 128 main tour players start in the first round. Higgins was a supporter of the move and believes it hasn’t affected snooker’s top order.
“There have been more faces on the TV but the top players are still the top players, more so than ever,” he said.
“I said before it happened that it’s good to have something new because it was all getting a bit samey. Different ideas can only add to the game, so the flat draws possibly are better.”
The Welsh Open presents an opportunity to build much needed confidence and ranking points in the run-in to the World Championship. Higgins plays an old friend, Malta’s Tony Drago, in the first round on Thursday afternoon in the last Welsh event to be staged at the Newport Centre before the tournament shifts to Cardiff next year.
“I’ve always liked the Welsh Open,” he said. “It’s always been well supported and I think the Welsh are like the Scottish fans, they enjoy their snooker and they know it. Newport might not be the best place in the world but it’s a good playing arena.
“The CIA in Cardiff was a better venue and it would be nice to go back there because the event has probably outgrown Newport.”
As recent years in the snooker world have proven, nothing stays the same forever. Higgins knows that the next few months could be crucial if he is to remain a contender at the top level as he approaches his 39th birthday in May.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.