THERE WAS A TIME when had John Higgins compiled three centuries, one of which was almost a maximum, plus come close to making another he would have won comfortably but so high is the standard at the very top that all these breaks garnered him were the four frames he won.
Mark Allen beat him 6-4 at the Dafabet Masters, despite being outscored 668-530. Because for all the big breaks – the Northern Irishman himself made a century – Allen won the key psychological frame, after he had needed a snooker. This made the difference between 4-4 and the actual score, 5-3 in his favour.
Higgins has been struggling for form and confidence all season. He arrived in London 14th in the world rankings. He started superbly but the question was how he would react to something going wrong, which it inevitably had to. Sure enough, he missed a green with the rest on 59 in the fourth frame looking good for 3-1 and later missed a red by a large distance. The first scintilla of doubt had been planted and his confidence was affected.
In the balls, as he proved in the ninth frame with his 15 reds, 15 blacks before missing a long yellow on 120, he was very reliable but once pressure shots came into the equation, it was noticeable that he struggled more, whereas at his very best he was always so reliable in such a setting.
So Allen is into the quarter-finals after what, ahead of the Ding Junhui-Joe Perry match, has surely been the best ever Masters first round. Every match has had incident and interest with some terrific snooker being played as well. There has been at least one century in every single match.
If anything, the Masters is harder to win than ever. It’s always been for the elite but now the top 16 does properly reflect form, whereas before Barry Hearn changed the ranking system there were sometimes players in the field who hadn’t won a match for months.
There’s a buzz about the tournament. Huge crowds have been getting involved. The Allen-Higgins match was played in a great spirit, with sportsmanship on show from Allen in the ninth frame when he felt he had gained an advantage after the referee replaced the balls after a miss (even though it seemed from the freeze frame that Jan Verhaas had done so accurately).
There were also some smiles and jokes between the players, all of which added to the entertainment. It was a good advert for snooker and one in the eye for the bores who love rolling out the old clichés about there being ‘no characters in the game.’ Yes there are, but you have to make an effort to watch the sport, talk to them, get to know them. It is of course easier to sit in an office somewhere relying on your prejudices.
Snooker was even on the back page of one national newspaper today, courtesy of Ronnie O’Sullivan equalling Stephen Hendry’s centuries record yesterday.
O’Sullivan remains the deserving title favourite but as we saw again today, there are a number of players putting on a show. And what a show.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.