You could see the pain writ large on John Higgins’ face. This was his fifth tournament final defeat this season, and the snooker gods had saved the most devastating for last. 9-4 up in the final of the Tour Championship, a prestigious event that sees just the eight best performing players of the season take to the table, Higgins looked a dead cert to end his run of final defeats and claim a 32nd ranking title.
But with the winning line beckoning, Higgins faltered. He started missing easy pots, and his opponent Neil Robertson began to find his feet. Bit by bit, the lead was eaten away at. In what felt like the blink of an eye, Robertson had pulled it all the way back to 9-9, and a dramatic final-frame decider was in the offing.
At that stage, it felt like there was only going to be one winner. Robertson was riding the crest of a wave — having stared defeat down the barrel and likely expected he was going to lose, this was something of a free hit for the Australian. Higgins, meanwhile, looked shell-shocked. A chance opened up for him in the decider, but with the balls nicely spread he missed a straight-forward red — much to his chagrin.
Robertson pounced and, against the all the snooker odds, laid claim to the title — his fourth of the season. The Australian’s joy was contrasted by a look of desperation on Higgins’ face. It’s the kind of defeat that will take a long time to recover from.
That spells bad news for Higgins’ chances in the World Championship. If he had managed to see out victory in the Tour Championship, he would have gone to Sheffield with a lot of confidence, but now it feels as though the Scot will have to use all his powers of recovery to get himself in the right mindset for the 17-day slog at the Crucible.
It’s worth remembering that Higgins lost three world finals in a row between 2017 and 2019, and that too has taken its toll. In fact, he has only won three of his last 12 ranking finals, and when you throw in his losses in the 2021 Masters final and the 2021 Champion of Champions final, it’s just three wins from 14 major showpiece matches.
That kind of form in the biggest games can only go on so long before it starts to take a serious mental toll, and that’s why Higgins will be up against it from the very first match at the Crucible, and might not be too fancied in the snooker tips. What he needs is to draw a World Championship first-timer, someone who may be overawed by the occasion, and from there he can make his experience count. If he draws a wilier campaigner who’s been around the block a few times, it could be curtains for Higgins in round one.
The 46-year-old has built a reputation as one of snooker’s most determined players, and that status is being tested now more than ever. In a way, you wouldn’t be all that surprised if Higgins was to end up winning the World Championship this year — after all, the fact he’s reached five finals this season indicates that his form is more than good enough. It’ll take all his mental strength to get over the devastating loss to Robertson, but Higgins is far too good to let his career peter out from here.