John Higgins believes his six-month ban from snooker has been the driving force behind his domination of the sport in 2011.
Higgins was handed a half-year suspension and fined £75,000 after being found guilty of “bringing the sport into disrepute” last year.
He was cleared of match-fixing but punished for not reporting a meeting where undercover journalists offered him money in exchange for altering the outcome of frames.
The former world No 1 – who has not been out of the top six in the world for the last 15 years – only returned to playing 12 months ago, but quickly showed a renewed appetite for the game, chalking up a string of tournament wins including the UK Championship and his fourth world crown.
Yet as he prepares to defend his UK title at the York Barbican next weekend, Higgins – who lost his father John Snr to cancer earlier this year – admits success on the table has come at a cost.
“It’s been an episode in my life which you wouldn’t want anybody to go through,” says the 36-year-old father of three.
“On the professional side, I won tournaments and played some good stuff, but on the personal side my whole life was turned upside down. It’s been a real rollercoaster 18 months.”
Asked if he thought his enforced break helped him re-focus on his career, he replies: “You would probably have to say ‘yes’.
“The season I did have since I got back, I probably have never had a season like that in all the previous years. That maybe focused what I do, made me do different things on the table, channel my thoughts differently.
“I don’t really think I could put my finger on how I did it, it just happened. It gave me a new purpose on my professional side.”
The UK Championship returns to York, following a £2m revamp, after several seasons away.
But the three-times UK winner has never tasted success in York before, his best campaign coming in 2006-07 when he went out in the semi-finals to eventual winner Peter Ebdon.
“It’s a great city,” he says. “There’s not many prettier places in the UK to be just a few weeks before Christmas. I hope to get a bit of Christmas shopping in.
“My first match is Saturday (against Rory McLeod) and if I win I don’t play again until Tuesday, so I might get a bit of shopping in.
“I lost in the semi-finals to Peter Ebdon the last time I played here – which someone has just reminded me of, I had tried to forget. I suppose that is the best I have done here.
“I am looking forward to playing. Rory will be a tough game, I just need to get some practice in these next few days.
“I wish it was this weekend actually. We have a PTC event kicking off in Sheffield on Monday until Wednesday, and then I head back up the road as my wife (Denise) has her birthday on Thursday. Travel back down Friday and I have my match on the Saturday,” adds Higgins, who has rented an apartment in the city.
While Steve Davis dominated the Eighties, and Stephen Hendry the Nineties, Higgins has shown a longevity highlighted by winning world titles in three different decades. He first won at the Crucible in 1998 and picked up further wins in 2007 and 2009, before returning this year to claim his fourth crown and stand behind only Hendry (7), Davis (6) and Ray Reardon (6) in world-title successes.
“Hard work does come with it, but you have to have some ability too,” he says. “Someone reminded me today that I have won the world title in three different decades. To do it with that gap in years between them is a great achievement, especially when you compare it to the likes of Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis who only did it in one decade. Although, they did win it a heck of a lot in their decade, so that evens the argument up.”
Asked if he thought he could go on and win the world title in a fourth decade, and well into his 40s, Higgins laughs: “Oh no, I think that’s a step too far.”
Of more immediate concern is a return to Sheffield on Monday morning for the latest event in the Players Tour Championship.
It will be a million miles away from the drama of the Crucible and the watching millions.
The event offers minor prize money, and even smaller crowds, and world champion Higgins, along with many of the game’s top names including Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Maguire, believes World Snooker have to take action.
Asked how he would evaluate chairman Barry Hearn’s attempts to introduce a series of new tournaments, Higgins says: “I think it’s given people more opportunity to play the game, but some events are pretty pointless to have. Playing in a box in front of no one, they are not good to have.
“It’s all trial and error just now with Barry (Hearn). He’s obviously seen which tournaments are working, and which aren’t, and I am sure next year he will pick out the ones which do work and put more effort into them.
“Ones which don’t work will be cast aside, because you can’t possibly play 52 weeks a year which I think Barry was trying to have.
“I think the top players will start picking and choosing their tournaments – the more events we have – because you have a professional life, but you also have a personal life.
“I suppose it’s okay for me just now, because I am at the top of my game, you’re invited to a lot of events, but if you start sliding down the rankings that’s when you are going to have to start re-evaluating your position.
“That’s maybe the reason the likes of Ronnie (O’Sullivan) has played in all these events because he doesn’t want to fall out of the top 16. There’s no way Ronnie O’Sullivan should be out of the top 16.”
Tickets for the UK Championship at York Barbican, December 3-11, are on sale now. For details call 0844 854 2757 or visit www.worldsnooker.com/tickets