Enter the Wizard

A lot has happened since that famous afternoon on the 24th April 2010 when the then reigning world champion John Higgins crashed out of the World Championship following a shock 13-11 defeat to Steve Davis. Over six months on however, one of the sport’s greatest ever players prepares to wait his long awaited competitive return to the sport at the EPTC5 event in Hamm…

The ins and outs of the actions of Higgins and his manager Pat Mooney together with their respective punishments have been the subject of much debate during the past few months but as Higgins prepares to return to competitive action, the focus now shifts to how he will be treated by both the players and fans, but most importantly of all, how he will play.

Generally speaking I expect that the majority of people involved in snooker will be behind John, taking the view that he was guilty of being naive more than anything else.

Having read a few of the leading snooker forums on the internet however, it is clear that there are also people who feel that he should have received a longer suspension for his actions. Inevitably some in this bracket will be the players, indeed who could blame them for being uncertain based on what is in the public domain? It would also appear that this extends to some of John’s fellow Scots, based on this extract from an article appearing in The Scotsman today:

“When the result came through, I was like, ‘Right I’m going over to Germany and I’ll show them all’, but now as the day gets closer, it’s like going to the dentist. You make the appointment and as it gets nearer you think, ‘Oh no’. I’m a bit nervous about how the players are going to take to me. It’s just something I’ll have to deal with.”

All of the Scottish boys have been behind him, he says. Then he checks himself: “Well, most of them.” He had messages of support from other players on the circuit as the horror was unfolding and they meant a lot to him. “And then you get some messages from others after the result which didn’t sit too kindly with me. You’d have appreciated it much more had you got a message while you were going through it.”

It is only natural that it is going to take some time before the players and fans are won over but whilst I cannot see the crowd reacting with quite the level of fervour that they might have done in the past when John is introduced by MC Rob Walker as the Wizard of Wishaw, indeed it would not shock me to hear a couple of boos, I expect that it will not be long before things return somewhat to normal.

Having been away from the table for six months however it may take some time before we see John’s game return to the normal high standard that we have come to expect from him. As he told The Scotsman in a second interview today, during his suspension, the last thing that he has wanted to do is pick up his cue, even to play his son:

“He asked me for a game but even then I couldn’t face picking up the cue. Couldn’t even play a game of pool with the boy. There were people saying to me, ‘Right John, we believe you, why don’t you just be in the club practising’. But I couldn’t do it. There was no purpose at the end of it. I’d have just been hitting balls about. There was no end goal.”

Even putting other factors to one side such as nerves (see the first Scotsman link) and how the crowd will treat him, six months away from the table is probably as long as he has spent away from the table since he was a young child and it is easy to underestimate the effect that this will have on him. Take Ding Junhui earlier on this season who having missed the earlier PTC events, began the season looking very rusty indeed when thrown in against a match-sharp Shaun Murphy in the Premier League. Another example is Anthony Hamilton who was forced to miss the early stages of the 2000/1 season having suffered a broken wrist and initially struggled for form upon his return to the circuit.

There is also a further factor that cannot be ignored and that is the very sad news that his father and mentor John Higgins Senior is reportedly in the final stages of his battle with cancer. At the best of times this is something that would affect any player, indeed any human but taking into account all of the circumstances around John at the moment then it is understandable that snooker may not be his number one focus at the moment.

On balance therefore I would be very impressed to see John reach the level that he was at during the 2009/10 season any time soon, although from a fan point of view I am pleased to see him back on the table as the sport is poorer for his absence, indeed what sport would benefit from the absence of its strongest player?

If he cannot rediscover his finest form immediately, will he ever do so? A couple of players recently have told me that they would be very surprised if he was to ever quite return to the very top of the game and it will be interesting to see whether he can or whether the damage has now been done.

Personally I do not think that John’s days of winning tournaments are over yet, he is too good a player, but it is going to take time I think, my bet would be that he won’t win a tournament during the remainder of this season…

What do you think?