The Wizard is back

John Higgins at his best

John Higgins is the champion of the 2021 Cazoo Players Championship. After playing in another venue at the Welsh Open, the players have returned to the "old" venue in Milton Keynes. That is Higgins' first ranking title since 2018 and it was well deserved. He played sublime snooker throughout the whole tournament, sustaining his 'A' game from the very start. Remarkably, he only dropped 4 frames in four matches — three of those were best-of-11 and the final was a best-of-19. The Wizard trashed Ronnie O‚ÄôSullivan 10-3 in the final to win his 31st ranking title and secure his place at the prestigious Cazoo Tour Championship at the end of the month (this one will also be held at the Celtic Manor Resort in Wales). He is the oldest player to win a ranking event in the modern era of the sport. Both finalists are 45 years old and started playing as professionals back in 1992, thus the term "class of 92". Despite being widely regarded as the best player to ever play the game, O'Sullivan now holds a very unpleasant record: he became the first player ever to lose four consecutive ranking finals in a single season. Remember that O'Sullivan had just lost to Jordan Brown (9-8) in the final of the Welsh Open the week before.

Higgins in the form of his life

Let's start with the four-time runner-up. O'Sullivan played decent snooker during the tournament, but still far from his true potential. He edged past Ding Junhui 6-5 in the first round and then I saw his famous 'A' game that had been missing for almost 2 years (not consideting best-of-7 matches) in the quarter-finals against Jack Lisowski. He made breaks of 63, 79, 124, 93, 125 and 59. Lisowski won a single frame with breaks of 57 and 68. Unlike Higgins, O'Sullivan could not carry on his 'A' game to his next match. It was quite the opposite because Barry Hawkins had a good start, winning the first and the next pair of frames with breaks of 109 and 87. O'Sullivan then raised his game and won five frames in a row, the latter four with breaks of 83, 75, 90, and 79. Barry stopped the onslaught with a break of 81 in frame 9. O'Sullivan won the tenth frame and the match 6-4 to secure his place in his fourth final of the season. This tournament gave us a glimpse of O'Sullivan's performance in the current season up until now. He has often reached the last stages of tournaments, only to fail at the final hurdles.

John Higgins was not as prolific as his old rival. He, too, lost in his first final of the season at the Masters to the Chinese teenager Yan Bingtao. He was playing well back then, but the player that we saw last week was in a league of his own. I need to emphasize this. John Higgins put up amazing performances during the tournament. He whitewashed Jordan Brown in the first round with three consecutive century breaks (122, 133, 121) and a pair of half-centuries (57 and 53). He then whitewashed Mark Selby in the quarter-finals. By then, everyone had noticed the supreme quality of the snooker he was playing. Higgins was flawless, ruthless, sharp and patient. I had never seen him play so well in such a consistent manner. He kept Selby in his chair with breaks of 60, 70, 63, 100 and 60. In fact, Selby only managed to score 7 points in the whole match. The next victim was Kyren Wilson. And again, Higgins kept the young player seated in his chair while playing the game beautifully and effortlessly. After winning the first frame, Higgins made breaks of 108, 88, 70, 51, and 74 on his way to victory. In frame 5, Higgins made a brilliant 51-point clearance to steal the frame. Kyren deserves some credit as he managed to do what seemed impossible up to that point: he won the sixth frame with a century break and averted a whitewash! Higgins has been working on his game using a different approach from that of the world champion. He has invested in his hardware (that fancy titanium ferrule) and changed his technique a bit. It seems it has paid off! I like to see the legends of the game reinventing themselves and showing great determination to compete and achieve new things in the sport.

Higgins was consistent and focused as ever and, not surprisingly, played unbelievably well in the final. He easily defeated the world champion 10-3. This time, however, I saw this coming (it is true, I can prove it). Higgins was playing the best snooker of his long career and O'Sullivan looked physically and mentally exhausted (he was yawning in his post-match interview after the semi-final). Time for a brief math class. The world champion happens to be a proud runner who says he has been running 9 miles a day. Assuming the claim is true and that he has indeed run an amazing 54 miles from Monday to Saturday, then it means that he showed up to play in the final on Sunday after having run two full marathons! How can a player perform at his best in these circumstances? Perhaps the idea of keeping fit as a means to better cope with pressure has gone wrong. End of the math class. In order to beat John Higgins, O'Sullivan needed to reproduce the same form he showed the last time he played in the final of this very same tournament in 2019. Back then, he brought his 'A' game and trashed Neil Robertson 10-4 to clinch his 35th ranking title. Higgins was not unplayable, so it is not like O'Sullivan had no chances, the problem was that he could not capitalize on the few chances that he did have. Without awakening his true potential, he would have lost the match nonetheless, but at least he could have made Higgins work more for his trophy.

After an edgy first frame won by the Scottish, the match turned into a massacre. Higgins built a 5-0 lead with breaks of 92, 68, 142 and 138 when O'Sullivan finally put one frame on the board with a break of 82. It was already too late for a comeback. Higgins won the seventh frame and O'Sullivan replied with the highest break of the tournament: a total clearance of 144. Higgins won the last frame of the session with a break of 51 and the first frame of the second session. O'Sullivan made another century (110) to win a third frame and after that he scored only 4 points. Higgins finished the match off by winning three frames in a row with breaks of 70, 77 and 127. The last century was particularly difficult to make, but Higgins refused to let go and somehow kept the break going. Truly remarkable performance! The best I have seen him play. The Wizard has now joined the elite group of ranking event winners of the current season.

Both finalists pulled out from the Gibraltar Open happening this week. It makes sense as both are guaranteed to play at the Tour Championship, which is a more important event, both in terms of ranking points and prestige. Only the top 8 in the one-year list are allowed to compete in the Tour Championship. World number one Judd Trump is back in action, and the top Chinese players Yan Bingtao and Ding Junhui suffered early exits. Another legend of the sport has come out of retirement after 9 years to have a go on the main tour: the seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry. The hype around his return is huge and I honestly hope he does well. After all, the Scottish has a reputation to live up to. He plays Matthew Selt in the first round of the Gibraltar Open today.

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