John Higgins grew up watching Steve Davis and marvelling at his achievements and the clever, calculating, formidable way he played the game.
So when Davis referred to him as “the greatest player ever” after the Scot’s fourth world title victory last May, Higgins was understandably overjoyed.
“To be honest that meant more to me than winning trophies,” he told me. “I know a lot of people won’t agree with him. They’ll say Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan or Steve himself, which is fair enough.
“But for me to hear that from Steve, who was and remains my hero in snooker, was really special. He’s a complete one-off and an inspiration.”
Higgins, like Davis before him, plays the classical game. He always knows the right shot and, though it might not always come off, almost always plays it.
He took a dim view of the recent Power Snooker, in which many of the finer points of the game were discarded. “In the words of Sir Steve Redgrave, if you see me anywhere near it again you have my permission to shoot me,” Higgins said.
“Credit must go to Rod Gunner for getting it on. It’s good for young players but it wasn’t my thing at all. I won’t be playing in any more of them.”
And as a traditionalist, Higgins is also unhappy that the forthcoming UK Championship has been reduced to best of 11 frames from best of 17.
“I’ve always played best of 17 at the UK Championship and it’s lost prestige now. It’s more like the Masters in my eyes,” he said.
“Barry Hearn is doing a great job as chairman of World Snooker but I wished he had spoken to the players first about this, because most aren’t in favour. He hasn’t given a proper reason yet for the change.
“I would rather have played a best of 17 qualifier to get to York than go there for best of 11s. I know the BBC want the top players guaranteed, but in the past they chose four players to play on TV in the last 32 and maybe could have done that again.
“Barry is a great promoter and doesn’t need to be coming to snooker players to check 99% of his decisions, but this is one he should have asked us about.
“I think Barry thinks people’s attention spans in the UK can’t handle longer matches. But I think you could lengthen matches in other countries. I hope we have a longer format tournament somewhere abroad.”
Higgins stresses he is not about to join the increasingly vocal group of players complaining about various aspects of Hearn’s tenure.
“Barry is the best man for the sport and snooker is moving in the right direction. I would give him 8/10 so far,” he said.
“Our sport couldn’t have got much worse but there was an appetite out there, in Europe and elsewhere, for the game. It just took someone with the skill to make it all work, which Barry has.
“If someone rang up to get a tournament on in Brazil he’d be on the first plane over there to get the deal done. He has an ego as big as Don King’s, so he wants to do as well as he can, for himself and the game. That’s what we need.”
Speaking of Brazil, Higgins did not enter the new invitation event there in September, citing the crowded calendar. Hearn publicly criticised him and other players for not supporting this new tournament.
“Barry took a pot-shot at us over Brazil, and probably rightly so because you do need top players to go to new places, but he’s made mistakes as well with the calendar. He’s trying to grow the sport but he has to try and manage the calendar better, otherwise you will get players not going.
“The game is heading in the right direction but it will involve more travelling, and you don’t enjoy that so much as you get older. The future of the game is the younger players, like Judd Trump. They don’t mind travelling so much but the top players will be picking and choosing the tournaments they play in.
“With my ranking, in the next couple of years I can do that, but if you fall down, like Ronnie O’Sullivan has, you don’t get so much of a choice because you don’t want to drop out of the top 16.”
Higgins returned to the circuit just over a year ago following his suspension and played like a man possessed, winning six titles big and small including the world and UK titles.
He put absolutely everything into every match, a level of commitment that it was impossible to sustain, particularly after the end of season break.
“It all frazzled my brain,” he said. “I put so much into my professional life that my personal life suffered.
“After the World Championship it was as if my brain exploded. I couldn’t have kept that intensity up and it’s taken a while to get back on an even keel.”
At 36, he is not at an age where snooker players improve. Usually they are entering some sort of decline by now, although there is no evidence of that with Higgins.
Like Davis before him, his all round game should keep him in good stead to compete at the top level for many more years, if he has the appetite to do so.
“Someone pointed out to me that I’ve won world titles in three different decades, which is some achievement. But I know I will be falling away soon,” he said.
“You want to fight it off. You want to be trying to fight to improve, but you know it’ll happen because it happens to every player. Like a golfer losing your length off the tee, you notice it happening with certain parts of your game.”
As for York, his UK Championship defence starts against Rory McLeod, a methodical, tough as old boots campaigner who Higgins battled against in a lengthy second round tie at the Crucible.
“You know what you’re going to get with Rory,” Higgins said. “At the Crucible I saw what he did to Ricky Walden in the first round, the way he got into his head, and I knew I couldn’t let him dictate the match against me.
“I think Rory deserves great credit for getting through the qualifiers. He rarely loses a qualifying match. He doesn’t seem to play as well at the venues but I think he will do one of these days. But you have to concentrate on playing your game your way.”
The way Higgins plays is still what most players aspire to. His ‘slow’ start to the season is a bit of a myth. He’s already done enough to qualify for the PTC grand finals and, of the two full ranking events, he’s been in a quarter-final.
There is no reason to believe he won’t come right for the big events of which, despite its reduction in frames, the UK Championship remains a test of skill and nerve and a prestigious title to win.
“I’m confident in my form,” Higgins said. “The PTCs are mainly about jockeying for position to get into the finals but top players tend to raise their games for the major tournaments.”