So that’s it for another year and as the snooker circus leaves Sheffield for another year and John Higgins leaves with the trophy, here are my thoughts on what for me has been a good, if not great 2009 World Championship…
What more can you say about John Higgins, now a three-times world champion and all-time snooker great?
Coming into the tournament at the top of the one-year rankings and on the back of a run to the final of the recent China Open, John was obviously in good form but undeniably there was a feeling that he had been recording consistent results without playing his best snooker.
This appeared to continue during his opening round match at the Crucible against Michael Holt (doesn’t that seem like ages ago now?), when he slipped 3-1 and 4-2 behind before coming back to take a 10-5 victory. He had not played badly but he would certainly have to improve to edge his way past the exciting young Jamie Cope who he would meet in the second round.
As far as Crucible classics go, this had everything, six century breaks, drama in the crowd and a deciding frame finish that went the way of the Scotsman following an absolutely terrific break of 80 which visibly meant a lot to him as he celebrated the winning balls going in. At the time this looked like being a big moment for him and so it proved as it got his world title campaign well and truly on track.
His quarter-final was always going to be tough however as against Mark Selby he faced an opponent who as an all-round matchplayer is arguably second only to John himself in the current game. Early on it looked as if Mark would be able to pull away as he opened up with three consecutive century breaks to lead 3-0, but Higgins is way too experienced to panic at the situation and ensured that the two would go into the final session level at 8-8. Once again it was his opponent who looked to be edging his way to victory as he moved 12-11 in front, but it was clearly Higgins who was cueing better and so it proved as he came through to win another final frame shoot-out.
On to the semi-finals and the questions being asked now were about John’s physical/mental state. After two deciding frame finishes, did he have enough left in the tank to see off the conqueror of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Antrim youngster Mark Allen? Simply put, yes he did as he moved 13-3 ahead after the first two sessions and looked like he might actually win with a session to spare. As it turned out John lost his focus slightly and Mark played some terrific snooker to get back into the match, but he had left himself too much to do and John got over the line for a 17-13 victory and a place in his fourth world final.
Having lost his concentration in that match the questions were again asked as to whether he would have anything left for the final against world number three Shaun Murphy, though personally I did not think that would be an issue. I didn’t however make Murphy the favourite for the match and as the score ticked over to 5-5, I thought that he was looking capable of putting a run together and that perhaps John would not be able to stay with him.
As it turned out though, it would be John who was to embark on a six frame winning streak from which ultimately he never looked back from. Murphy tried his hardest but it was just not happening for him and as he would later comment upon, John’s safety play left him in all sorts of trouble and when his potting was not firing, it was always going to be an uphill struggle.
Well done to John though, this was an awesome performance from an awesome player. For much of this season he has won matches without being at his best, just look at the Grand Prix as a classic example of that, but during this tournament and in particular the last two matches, he was brilliant and showed just why he is so highly regarded by snooker fans. For all of the great play against Murphy though, it will still be the final three frames from his match with Jamie Cope that I will really remember from this tournament and I am pleased to say that I was there to witness that first-hand.
He might have fallen a step short but in reaching the world final, as well as winning the UK Championship this year, Shaun has completed what is to date his best season on the professional tour, which early on would have sounded ridiculous!
I have to say that once he saw off Marco Fu 13-3 and played some brilliant stuff to edge past Stephen Hendry in the quarter-finals, I thought that he was looking ominously good to take this title and that his combination of long-potting and heavy scoring would carry him to his second world title. As it turned out though it was not to be and in truth the signs were there during his semi-final match with Neil Robertson when the Australian (not renowned for his tactical play), definitely had the upper hand in the safety exchanges and came close to completing a memorable comeback.
While he got away with it against him though, he was never going to be so lucky against John Higgins who as Shaun said after the match, is surely the best tactical player out there at the moment. Murphy just had no answer and as he started to miss a few easy balls and not take his chances, the writing was on the wall. I actually thought that he played quite well in the third session but he lost a number of close frames having just failed to clear up the final few balls and at 16-8, he had no chance of getting back into it.
Still, it has been a positive tournament for Murphy and at 26 years old remains a fairly safe bet to add to the world title he won in 2005 during the next few seasons.
While experience may have come to the fore in the final as John Higgins captured his 20th ranking event title, probably the best thing to come out of the 2009 World Championship for me is the emergence of some of the younger players, namely Mark Allen and Jamie Cope, as well as Neil Robertson who reached his first semi-final.
As regular readers will know, Allen is a player that I really rate as a potential champion in the future so following what has been a fairly mixed season, I think it is great not just for him, but for the sport that he was able to make it all the way to the semi-finals and gain some valuable experience at the business end of the tournament. While defeating Ronnie O’Sullivan in the second round was a massive achievement however, I think arguably more important for him was the way he responded from 13-3 down against John Higgins and eventually made a real match of it. Hopefully this will give him the self-belief to push on next season and win his first title.
For Jamie it has also been a big week as not only did he brush aside Joe Perry with relative ease, but he pushed eventual winner Higgins all the way in his second match before losing out 13-12. While he is only 23 years of age, not old by any means, having seemingly been around for quite a while now without having quite made the step up to the top 16 I was just beginning to question whether Jamie would quite be able to make that jump up and establish himself as a top player. If he can become more consistent and produce this kind of form next season however, he will have no trouble and will surely make that step up into the top 16 sooner rather than later.
147 Heaven for Hendry
Stephen Hendry came into the event short on form, but left it with £181,050 for his efforts in reaching the quarter-finals and making his ninth career 147, his second at the Crucible. It is strange how snooker works sometimes because as it turned out, he arguably lost his match against Shaun Murphy as a result of the 147 which appeared to cause him to lose his focus for the second session. Still Murphy did play some top snooker in that session and Stephen can at least take some positives from the week because he did play as well as I have seen him play at the Crucible since around 2002. Whether he can maintain that form into next season remains to be seen but he has at least given himself a boost in terms of the world rankings.
During the past few seasons I have complained about certain aspects of the whole tournament experience at the Crucible because I feel that since Embassy left in 2005, it has not been quite the same.
This year however I feel that the show was much improved and that Betfred in particular have done a fantastic job in their first year as title sponsor, and hope that the tournament continues to progress over the course of the next few seasons.
The changes in many cases are subtle, but they all add up to make the event a better experience for the fans. The most obvious improvement has been the re-introduction of a betting stand outside the arena, something that definitely adds a bit of atmosphere to the place and gives people something to do between frames. Furthermore you can see that Betfred have really thrown themselves into the tournament, handing out free t-shirts, having cheerleaders perform a routine on final night, putting the banner up to commemorate Stephen Hendry’s 147 and also producing an excellent and regularly updated website for the tournament.
In addition, the programme is also much better this year, though I am not sure whether this is down to Betfred or World Snooker. Whoever is responsible, the content is good and also you can now fill in the draw again as the tournament progresses, a really little change but one that is welcome.
Finally a word on tournament MC Rob Walker who is not everybody’s cup of tea, but personally I think that he does a brilliant job. He’s energetic, quirky, enthusiastic and having spoken to him outside the venue, seemingly a really nice guy. I hope that he will be part of the tournament for many years to come.
Following the final I asked a few people how they would rate the tournament as a whole and the general consensus seemed to be somewhere around 7/10, which I think is fairly accurate. On the positive side we have seen a 147, the tournament record for centuries smashed and a worthy winner, but it must also be said that there have been few upsets and really classic matches that will be remembered for many years to come. As it happens though, the deciding frame finishes that we did have were both won by John Higgins so it is perhaps fitting that it is he who lifted the trophy.
Away from the snooker I probably enjoyed the event more than any since my first visit to the Crucible back in 2005 however and already cannot wait until we are back there next year. One thing that is for certain is that while it feels like a long way off now, it will soon come around again and hopefully we will have another hard to call tournament on our hands…