World Snooker Championship 2019: Judd Trump must find way to outlast John Higgins in marathon of the mind

“In my eyes he’s the greatest match player ever to play the game,” Dennis Taylor said on commentary, as John Higgins clawed another semi-final frame from the unsuspecting David Gilbert. “That’s why John Higgins will always be in my top four players of all time.” It seemed like a contradictory statement: isn’t all top snooker match play? How can Higgins be a better match player than more prolific world champions like Steve Davis, or Stephen Hendry, or Ronnie O’Sullivan?

But over several gruelling hours on Saturday night, Higgins demonstrated exactly what Taylor meant.

The 43-year-old Scot had trailed the relatively inexperienced Gilbert 8-3, 10-6 and then 14-11, and was playing dreadfully in parts, barely able to control the cue ball and missing straightforward pots. It was symptomatic of a terrible season in which he had failed to win a single event and had considered retirement as his motivation slumped.

But the Crucible requires something all together separate from good break-building and a solid safety game. It demands more than an eye for a long pot. Clive Everton famously dubbed the World Championship “a marathon of the mind”, and you knew exactly what he meant: players spend two weeks in a windowless room in Yorkshire dressed like a Covent Garden magician, bright lights glaring down, hundreds of gawpers a few feet away while someone in white gloves watches their every move, counting, counting, counting. It is enough to drive anyone to distraction; it is why only the most unwaveringly sane snooker players ever fulfil their talent, and why pure genius can implode in the first round.

And so Higgins’ endurance kicked in. Gradually he began reeling in his opponent, like he’s done so many times before. He was unfazed by a frame which was re-racked – twice – before winning it with a break of 96. He held his nerve in a mammoth 40-minute frame, then plotted his way to a 139-clearance to force a decider. And when he was offered the chance when Gilbert missed a black, Higgins clinched his place in the final with a match-winning 55. That infallible nerve is priceless in the Crucible goldfish bowl, and it will count for an awful lot against the raw talent of Judd Trump over the next two days.

It would be lazy to lump Trump in as a kind of maverick underachiever: he has matured from the young man who took on every pot deemed possible by the laws of physics, and some that weren’t. His game is more rounded now, with an appreciation for strategy and safety, for controlling the invisible ebbs and flows of a match, for dictating the decisive moments within each frame. He eased past Gary Wilson in his semi-final and will start the final as a slight favourite.

Yet Trump will rightly be wary. He will not need to have watched Higgins this week to know how gritty the Scot will be. Trump’s only Crucible final came in 2011, against Higgins: he was 10-7 up overnight before the Scot clawed back that advantage on bank holiday Monday and won his fourth and most recent world title. This will be Higgins’ eighth final; he has been runner-up the past two years in attritional encounters with Mark Selby and Mark Williams and will be desperate not to add a third to that run.

If the World Championship is a marathon of the mind, the these are surely the hardest miles to run. Trump must outlast a long-distance master to be the last man standing at the Crucible.