While it’s six months until the pinnacle of the snooker season, the World Championship, there is an argument that says the festive period is the most important time for the sport’s leading lights.
At the end of November, and running into December, the UK Championship is the first of the Triple Crown events – it’s a tournament with stacks of history, and it’s one they all want to win.
And then the new year heralds the Masters at London’s spectacular Alexandra Palace. While an invitational, non-ranking tournament, the Masters is the third of the Triple Crown events that, when players grow up, they imagine winning above all others.
With a couple of ranking events already in 2021/22, the campaign is starting to go through the gears and now is the time for the cream of the crop to hit their stride – especially with the UK Championship and the Masters around the corner.
It was local favourite Mark Allen that triumphed in the Northern Ireland Open, but equally high on the agenda was the form – both physical and on the green baize – of John Higgins. The nine-time major winner is priced at 14/1 in the UK Championship betting on snooker at Betfair, and he surely represents fantastic value based on the evidence witnessed in Belfast.
???? Starts the week with a 147
???? Ends it as Northern Ireland Open champion
???? Mark Allen thrills the Belfast crowd once again after defeating John Higgins in an epic final pic.twitter.com/1imYeDrRkT
— Sporting Life (@SportingLife) October 17, 2021
A Weighty Subject
While not the most physical of sports, snooker players do spend hours on their feet in longer format matches – they also have to cajole themselves into some ‘unique’ positions when leaning across the 12ft x 6ft table.
Higgins has admitted his battles with his weight in the past, and adding a few extra pounds is not ideal for the average snooker pro – let alone one into his 46th year.
Sensing the need for a change after suffering from shortness of breath at the World Championships, the Scot has taken up spin classes – and the change in him has been remarkable. Higgins has lost around three-and-a-half stone since embarking on his healthy regime, and he looked in excellent shape at the Northern Ireland Open.
“I just seem to be a little bit addicted to them,” Higgins revealed in Belfast. “I go three or four times a week. I enjoy getting up in the morning and doing an hour of training.”
Whether the improvement in his game is down to his new regime, or merely a sort of placebo effect, is anybody’s guess, but Higgins looked back to his best in his run to the final in Belfast. Victories over Farakh Ajaib and Luca Brecel swept the Wizard of Wishaw into the third round, where he waved his magic wand/cue to produce a miraculous comeback victory against fellow veteran Mark Williams.
52, 83, 61 & 78
The breaks that have established a 4-2 advantage for John Higgins over Yan Bingtao.
— World Snooker Tour (@WeAreWST) October 16, 2021
The Scot then beat the in-form David Gilbert next time out, and he gained revenge over Yan Bingtao for his defeat in the Masters final earlier this year. That set up a final with the home favourite Mark Allen, and Higgins controlled the atmosphere perfectly to romp into an 8-6 lead in the best-of-17 frame contest.
But Allen, powered by an increasingly animated Belfast crowd, found an extra gear and was able to haul in Higgins, winning each of the last three frames to clinch the trophy.
The 46-year-old is experienced enough to take the positives from what would have felt like a negative experience at the time, and heading into the business end of the calendar year – and into 2022 – he will know that his game and his health is in the perfect place to strike for more major honours.