EXCLUSIVE: I've not been trying hard enough, admits struggling world champ Higgins
13:01 GMT, 19 April 2012
It’s not often you meet a world champion who is low on confidence. But John Higgins, who won the Betfred.com World Snooker Championship in May 2011, has endured a torrid year.
Failing to win a single event on snooker’s busy calendar is not something you expect of a four-time winner of the sport’s greatest prize, but you do expect them to put an appropriate amount of effort into their endeavours – something Higgins is willing but not proud to admit he has not done.
When asked about his year, he was open and honest.
‘It’s been poor, it’s been very poor,’ he said. ‘It’s not been what I would have expected or hoped for. I’ve not been putting the correct amount of effort back into the game, which you need to. To be a top level sportsman you need to put a lot of time and effort in, and I’ve not been doing that.
Frank assessment: Higgins was critical of his form in the last year
‘You need to practice five or six days a week. I’ve been lucky if it’s even been one or two. That goes to show you where the problem lies.’
Higgins' most recent failure was at the China Open, which saw him eliminated in the second-round by Peter Ebdon. His conqueror eventually went on to win the tournament, but that proved scant consolation for the Scot, whose admission he was not especially disappointed with his exit highlighted his general malaise.
‘I’m not too disappointed with my performance there because it just joined a list of the other disappointments I’ve had this year,’ Higgins drolly explained.
When Higgins won last year’s World Championship, it looked like being a springboard for further success after some distressing events in his life.
Frame-fixing allegations were a source of trouble for the player after an undercover operation by the now-defunct News of the World, and although the charges were dropped, Higgins was still slapped with a 75,000 fine and banned for six months for bringing the game into disrepute.
Worse still, Higgins’ father and mentor, John Snr, died two months before the tournament began after losing his battle with cancer, prompting the Wizard of Wishaw to shed tears after his victory.
Testing times: Higgins lost his father last year
Was this the reason Higgins found it difficult to put in the right application away from events ‘Possibly, yeah,’ he said. ‘You can only be human when things like that happen. Obviously it’s tough. It’s always tough when you lose someone close to you.
‘It’s hard to try and get used to that but everyone in life has to go through that, you just have to do it the best you can.’
Although Higgins has never been a crowd favourite, it seems possible that the reaction towards the unsavoury allegations could be affecting his game. In the semi-final of the 2011 tournament he was heckled by an accusatory spectator.
But Higgins refused to give the idea any credence. ‘It was a one-off,’ he said. ‘The crowds have been good ever since.’
The crowds and atmosphere at Sheffield’s Crucible Higgins ranks as the best in snooker.
‘You can’t get any better than playing in the crucible, in that gladiatorial arena,’ he said. ‘There’s been years I’ve been there and really, really struggled, and lost quite heavily.
Wizard of Wishaw: Higgins is going for his fifth world title
‘It’s a very unforgiving arena. You play well and it can be great, but you can have the worst moments of your career there.
In 1998, 2007, 2008 and 2011 Higgins enjoyed some of the great times there. Will 2012 be the next ‘I’ve been putting in seven days a week,’ he said. ‘But it could be too little, too late. It’s only been for three weeks I’ve been putting the practise in, so we’ll need to wait and see.
‘But the World Championship is a funny tournament. You can go down there without any confidence behind you but if you win a match you can pick it up from there.’
And it seems Higgins is excited about the direction the sport of snooker is heading in, under dynamic chief Barry Hearn. He said: ‘He’s had a great effect. It’s been the most important thing that we’ve had in snooker for the last 10 to 20 years.
‘He’s breathed a new life into the sport. It was going nowhere a few years ago, now it is full steam ahead.’
It seems Higgins is finding inspiration within himself as well, as he pledged to get back on track in the new snooker year ahead – starting with the World Championships.
Pledge: Higgins is looking to get his career back on track
‘I love the game of snooker. I love competing,’ he insisted. ‘There’s a fear there also you don’t want to fall too far down the rankings. A fear that drives you on to stay at the top level for as long as you can.’
This fear is compounded by young challengers looking to make their mark on the world stage – Higgins won the 2011 final against rising star Judd Trump.
‘Last year he brought something different to the Championship and the atmosphere he brought with him was great,’ explained Higgins. ‘He’s young, good looking, and he loved going on his twitter during the breaks. He’s been great for snooker and he will be great for snooker in the coming years.’
But the veteran does not see eye to eye with Trump on everything. The youngster said he would be in favour of a shot clock being introduced into some of snooker’s classic tournaments, but Higgins is not enamoured with the idea.
Defending champion: Higgins will look to repeat last year's performance
‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t be against a maximum time to play a shot but when you put a shot clock on for 15 to 20 seconds to play a shot, that’s too far.
‘I would be lost. I don’t really enjoy the shot clock. I’m not a slow player, but I don’t think the idea of people telling you when to hit a shot should come into it. It’s like saying to Tiger Woods you’ve got 10 seconds to run up there and hit the golf ball down the middle of the fairway. It should not happen.'
But with new players like Trump springing up the sport is thriving. Hearn has made many changes and introduced plenty of new events. With renewed vigour and determination, Higgins is looking forwards.
He said: ‘Things happen in life for a reason. You should not have regrets at all in life. Live for tomorrow, don’t think about the past.’
It will be a lot easier for Higgins to forget his last year if it ends with his fifth World Championship triumph.