If John Higgins suffers a shock early defeat in the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre, we won’t wag our heads and say that his legs have gone, as we would of a footballer. We won’t say that age has withered him, he’ll never be the same again. We’ll expect him to come back stronger next year.
There was a time, when Steve Davis was coolly outplaying his competitors and then Stephen Hendry was lashing in long pots with focused ferocity, that snooker was a young man’s game: keenness of eye and daring to dare would beat any amount of canniness and experience.
These days the top ranks of snooker are full of 40-plusses: Higgins, Ronnie O’Sullivan – an enfant terrible with distinguished greying hair – Mark Williams, Marco Fu, Stuart Bingham. They don’t keep their ranking by avoiding difficult shots; that way of playing is more than 20 years out of date. You have to take risks. The skill is in knowing what risks to take – and that knowledge comes with age.
I remember speaking to Davis years ago. Davis was a rare thing: a champion with a taste for self-analysis. Most top performers in sport prefer to keep things vague: sacred mysteries, and the fear that if you talk about it, it will vanish. “You’re allowed to miss a pot,” he said. “Anyone can miss a pot. It’s when you’re thinking wrong that you’ve lost.” Thinking wrong is about making wrong decisions: going for a long shot when the better move is playing safe, or playing safe when the right thing is to attack. Thinking right is about knowing your game, knowing your own strengths and limitations under stress. It’s about knowing your opponent’s game, the heart of all confrontational sports. And it’s also about understanding the elusive rhythm of snooker.
These days O’Sullivan can still play two or three successive frames of blinding brilliance, but when his game falls away from those impossible peaks, he can play precise safety shots, and pounce when the moment is right. Higgins is perhaps the perfect example of the ability to think right. When that chance comes – one length-of-the-table pot to take control of the game and establish a winning break – well, stick or twist? It’s about knowing the odds, not as a mathematical equation, but as a complex calculation involving your physical skills.
Younger players tend to lack this skill. They rely on a talent for dramatic potting and their ability to keep a break going. Over the long course of World Championship snooker, the odds favour the player who thinks right. The hot-and-colder will get caught.
The drama of modern snooker comes down again and again to these decisions: those moments when success and failure, in a frame of many strokes – and a match of many hundreds of strokes – can all come down to a single shot. You can take it on and miss, leaving the table for your opponent – or you can turn it down, and your opponent will seize control. What do you do?
Davis used to say that no single aspect of his game was great: “There are no tens there. But there are no threes and fours either.” In the same way, Higgins is the master of his own limitations: never striving to be more than he is, but never settling for less. He attacks when attacking is right, not when attacking looks good. He plays safe when safety is necessary – and that too is a kind of courage. Above all else, he has made his age an advantage. He gets full value from his years.