‘Scottish Sunday’ at Crucible as Higgins rediscovers form

John Higgins.
John Higgins.
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Crucible thoroughbreds John Higgins and Graeme Dott led the Scottish charge on Sunday at the Betfred World Championship.

Four-time winner Higgins impressed with a 10-5 first-round victory over Robert Milkins, and looked to be approaching the form that last saw him take the title four years ago.

The 39-year-old fired breaks of 77, 75, 69 and a clinching 106 in the second session as he coasted home against Gloucester potter Milkins, who took the match beyond its evening interval but was thoroughly outplayed.

Milkins said of his conqueror: “It’s going to take a good man to beat him on that form.

“He’s playing really good stuff. I think I did well to get five frames.”

Dott, unseeded this year but a proven Crucible class act and champion in 2006, was a 10-8 winner earlier as he ousted Ricky Walden.

Higgins has sprung back to competitive form level this year, notably in taking the Welsh Open title in February to end a two-and-a-half-year major trophy drought.

He had openly expressed fears his days as a winner were over, but Higgins is daring to dream of a fifth world title.

He said: “I’m feeling relief and pride to beat Robert because he’s a dangerous player. I knew I’d lost my last four matches to him.

“I thought I hit the ball well. I missed a few but I felt good in amongst them.”

Asked directly whether he was a potential champion, Higgins initially said: “Nah. There’s more and more contenders out there. I probably know what it takes to win it but there’s more favoured players than me.”

But the desire is there, and unmistakably he does have one eye on the trophy.

Higgins added: “It would be amazing if I could win it and go level with somebody like Ronnie O’Sullivan on five titles. That would be beyond my wildest dreams. The fire is still there.

“I’ve had a few sleepless nights thinking I’d never get back into the winners’ circle. Luckily it happened at the Welsh Open and that’s given me a bit of a boost.

“You doubt yourself definitely, especially in dark times, but now hopefully there’s some good times.

“Just to win this again would be incredible. Ronnie has probably outstripped me, winning more tournaments and making more century breaks, and he’s obviously chasing Stephen Hendry’s records.

“But there’s perhaps Hendry, Ronnie and (Steve) Davis before me winning most. If it’s just those three ahead of me I can’t complain. It’s not a bad three to have in front of you.”

Dott has endured an unsatisfying season to date, but puts that partly down to matches becoming ever shorter. The best-of-seven-frame tussles that are increasingly commonplace simply do not suit Dott, but the marathon of the Crucible plays to his strengths.

“It’s got to suit me,” Dott said. “If you compare it to horse racing, I’m a Grand National horse but all I’m ever running is seven furlongs, it’s just not long enough.”

He added: “It was nice to win because I wasn’t here last year which was a horrible feeling.

“It’s nice to know you can still do it at the Crucible. I’m 37 and when you don’t qualify you think maybe that’s me finished.

“I played a good game and I’m delighted to win.”

This is Dott’s 16th shot at the tournament, and as well as landing the title in 2006 he was runner-up in 2004 and 2010.

The match might have worked out very differently for Walden, who trailed 5-4 overnight but at one stage pulled 7-6 clear. In the 12th frame the Chester cueman fired in 13 reds and 13 blacks but missed the next red, an awkward one to the green pocket, which ended hopes of a 147 maximum break that would have brought Walden a £30,000 bonus.

Dott powered in 78 to draw level at 7-7, after Walden had looked in command during a 53 break, and the Larkhall man edged ahead before moving to the brink of victory with 65 to pull 9-7 ahead.

“Damn”, Dott mouthed after he wriggled out of a snooker in the next frame but left Walden the yellow. The Englishman cleared to the pink to trail 9-8, but after further drama on the colours in the next frame he offered his hand when Dott knocked in the blue.

Dott remains aggrieved by having to play three best-of-19-frame matches just to get to the main draw. The previous format meant a player of his standing had just one to negotiate.

“If you get qualifiers that are just happy to be here at the Crucible, and get their pictures taken, the three matches help,” Dott said.

“But if you’ve got aspirations to win it, it’s going to hinder you later on.

“You can see fatigue kicking in if you got to the semis, because of those three extra matches.

“I’ve been to three finals and know how tiring it is.”

Beaten Walden said: “It was a tough game, a very close game in the end, and Graeme deserved to win. He’s a dangerous player and his game is in decent shape I think.”

There was another Scottish winner on Sunday night, as Anthony McGill caused a shock with a 10-9 win over 16th seed Stephen Maguire.

Australian Neil Robertson, the 2010 champion, fired breaks of 143, 109 and 94 in establishing a 7-2 lead over Welshman Jamie Jones.

Hong Kong’s Marco Fu booked his place in the second round by fending off Bexhill’s Jimmy Robertson 10-6, while Barry Hawkins built a 7-2 lead over Matt Selt.