I enjoyed watching Ronnie O’Sullivan play John Higgins in the Premier League the other night.
I enjoy any good snooker but especially so when a match features two of the sport’s all time greats.
Snooker doesn’t have an official Hall of Fame. If it did, Ronnie and John would be members.
Their rivalry began long before they turned professional as teenagers in 1992.
They each benefited from having parents who nurtured their talent and interest in snooker, driving them to junior pro-ams and festivals.
At the 1991 World Masters in Birmingham there was a junior competition. O’Sullivan was favourite. Then, as now, there was much hype surrounding him. Most of it was justified. He had, after all, been making centuries for fun since he was ten and just won the IBSF world under 21 champion.
However, Higgins beat him on his way to the final where he would beat another future world champion, Mark Williams, to land the title.
O’Sullivan made an explosive start to his professional career. In only his second season he won the UK Championship and joined the top 16 at the end of that campaign.
This is some achievement in any era.
But Higgins was also making rapid progress and, in the 1994/95 season, became the first player to win three ranking titles as a teenager. Only Ding Junhui has since emulated this.
Unencumbered by the sort of emotional distress O’Sullivan was going through, Higgins emerged as the leading challenger to the supremacy of Stephen Hendry.
His position as the game’s top player was confirmed when he won the 1998 world title and took over at the top of the rankings.
He could have won the title two years earlier but lost to O’Sullivan in the quarter-finals. Higgins could be forgiven for thinking he had been hard done by: the night before their match began he did not even know if there would be a match. O’Sullivan had physically assaulted a tournament official and the WPBSA top brass were meeting to decide if he should be thrown out of the event.
This was far from ideal preparation for O’Sullivan but neither was it for Higgins, who had done nothing wrong.
It is often said O’Sullivan has had a controversial career. Compared to most it has been but Higgins has been no stranger to controversy either.
He did, after all, walk out of a tournament after reaching the quarter-finals and was thrown off a plane for being drunk.
As is often the case, though, the truth behind the headlines is depressingly banal. In the first case he had been given wrong information and was not going to miss his brother’s wedding; the second case was comical – he had been drinking but was not being abusive to anyone. Had he been allowed to sit down he would have been asleep in seconds.
Some of O'Sullivan's various 'controversies' have also been over hyped and not representative of what actually happened, but both players know that this is what you get for being famous.
I thought Higgins could dominate in the way Steve Davis and Hendry had but he suffered a very disappointing defeat to Williams in the 2000 Crucible semi-finals and after his first son, Pierce, was born in 2001 he took his foot off the gas.
The truth is that John is not like Davis and Hendry when it comes to the relentless pursuit of titles. He recently said that, on his death bed, he would probably not say he wished he had spent more time on a snooker table.
As Higgins went into a slight decline, Williams took over at the top.
O’Sullivan at this time was in turmoil or, to be exact, in the Priory Clinic.
When he came out he appeared to be transformed. He was humble, he was charming and he seemed grateful to have received some meaningful help at long last.
Sadly, this didn’t last and his depressions returned but he was able to produce enough top quality snooker to win a succession of titles, including the 2001 World Championship.
His final against Higgins was, in terms of quality, one of the very best. O’Sullivan’s victory was sweeter for beating Higgins – not because of any unfriendliness between them but because of the long time respect each feels for the other.
Higgins told O’Sullivan afterwards he was happy for him and happy for his father, Ronnie Senior, who was serving time for murder.
This meant a lot to O’Sullivan. At the reception later that night he said that, while there are many great players, “John is a proper man.”
They’ve played many times since and it’s always a great occasion when they do.
Higgins made a record four straight centuries during his 9-2 drubbing of O’Sullivan in the 2005 Grand Prix final.
They contested one of the best finals ever seen at the 2006 Wembley Masters in which Higgins cleared up with 64 in the decider to win 10-9 on the black.
He had gravity to thank at the start of the break: a red hovered over a middle pocket before dropping in. There was, though, nothing fortunate about the clearance.
O’Sullivan won a similarly thrilling final at the 2003 Irish Masters in which he potted a great brown early in the break that would bring him a 10-9 victory.
O’Sullivan is ahead on wins and on overall titles. Indeed, almost all of the stats are in his favour.
But arguing about who is the better player is a bit like arguing about which is the best chocolate: you should just enjoy them both.
Many players feel Higgins has a better all round game but nobody would dispute O’Sullivan’s great natural genius.
O’Sullivan and Higgins are gifts to the game: two great players who have helped take snooker to new heights.
The good news for snooker fans is that, with O’Sullivan the current world no.1 and Higgins stationed fifth, their friendly rivalry at the top level is far from finished yet.
FOR THE RECORD
UK Championship titles