‘Beer we go’ says Higgins, as Scot toasts 70th career clash with long-time rival O’Sullivan
Think great individual sporting rivalries. Roger Federer v Rafa Nadal. Steve Ovett v Sebastian Coe. Maybe Ayrton Senna v Alain Prost.
But when it comes to the green baize over the last 29 years and even beyond into junior days, nothing can match Ronnie O’Sullivan v John Higgins.
The two players, part of the famous ‘Class of 1992’ that also included Mark Williams, incredibly meet for the 70th time in all competitions on Friday night in the quarter-finals of the Betfred Masters.
The Rocket is the record seven-time winner of the prestigious invitation tournament reserved exclusively for members of the elite top 16.
Scot Higgins has won it just twice, but the last of those – back in 2006 at the old Wembley Conference Centre, was one neither he nor O’Sullivan will ever forget.
O’Sullivan led 60-0 in the decider but broke down, and Higgins swooped in with the best 64 clearance of his life for a 10-9 victory, and one of the sweetest moments of his career.
The illustrious pair have been trading blows, frames, centuries and titles since a then-unknown Higgins beat the more heralded O’Sullivan before their pro days, in the Mita World Masters.
Since then, as well as the nine Masters crowns, the duo have won a total of 116 other titles including 10 Betfred World Championship wins at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
The mutual respect from the 45-year-olds is genuine and deep-rooted – and Higgins is urging fans to give themselves a lockdown treat by getting the beers and a takeaway in and enjoying the occasion.
Higgins (above) says: “Playing Ronnie on a Friday night at the Masters … a lot of sports are not happening at the moment.
“So hopefully it will be a good night, and we can put on a show – get the beers in, order a Chinese takeaway, and enjoy a great match.
“Hand on heart I don’t think with Ronnie it has ever spilled over into anything other than a friendly rivalry – there is too much respect both ways.
“I first read about him in magazines when I was a junior. But at that time, I was not at a level where I was thinking ‘He could be my rival’ because when I was 14 or 15, I wasn’t that good.
“I wasn’t that good as a junior – and then it just happened over six months for me. I went down to London for the Mita World Masters, beat Ronnie and then played Mark Williams in the final.
“However, Ronnie has been the benchmark ever since I turned professional. Stephen Hendry was the main man at the time, but I always felt that at some point Ronnie would take over that mantle.
“And when I retire from this game I will be happy that we have had such a good rivalry for all those years.
“It is brilliant we are still here and competing. I have seen it all against Ronnie – I have won big and lost big against him, with also many tight matches.
“And we have played more matches against each other than Steve Davis and Jimmy White now – and when I was growing up that was the big rivalry.”
As reigning and six-time world champion O’Sullivan is the clear favourite both to win this match and an eighth title – but he won’t ever take anything for granted against class act Higgins.
World No3 O’Sullivan (above), running 45 miles a week and having practised six hours a day for the last three weeks, is the only one of the in-form ‘Big Four’ – also featuring Judd Trump, Mark Selby and Neil Robertson – still in the draw.
He says: “John has definitely been my greatest rival throughout my career and at several times he was my main motivation to get better.
“I knew he as a better professional than me, and had a better all-round game, so I needed to work on stuff to try and compete with him.
“And even if he hasn’t won a title for a bit no one should ever write him off.
“Snooker is such a confidence game and if you have that and also have the ability, you will always be a danger whatever your age.”
The winner will play David Gilbert on Saturday night, after snooker’s ‘Angry Farmer’ chalked up the best result of his poor season by a country mile – edging out Kyren Wilson 6-5.
And the man coming through Friday afternoon’s clash between Stephen Maguire and Yan Bingtao will face defending champion Stuart Bingham, after he saw off an out-of-sorts Shaun Murphy 6-3 on Thursday night.
Bingham missed his daughter Marnie Rose’s fourth birthday in playing his quarter-final.
Pocketing the £250,000 first prize and lifting the trophy for the second year in a row might see an upgrade on the birthday present when he returns to Basildon.