John Higgins believes his top-level career has reached crisis point - expressing fears over his ability at 46 to win close major finals.
And the snooker legend admits that his latest 9-8 showpiece defeat to Neil Robertson at the English Open will hurt for a long time – demons that can only be exorcised with another title. It was a 21st ranking title for Australian Robertson, 39, who celebrated with new wife Mille and son Alexander in the Marshall Arena.
But four-time world champion Higgins suffered the cruel agony in Milton Keynes for the second successive final of losing a final-frame thriller after leading 8-6. The same thing happened against Mark Allen in the Northern Ireland Open final in Belfast last month prompting Higgins to suggest he could no longer mix it with the top players.
Higgins said: “That’s about as tough a loss as they come. Maybe my time at the top, top level getting over the line is over with the chance I had in the final frame.
“I’m not sure if it will come good, because if I am in that position again then the way I am feeling now I will be thinking I won’t close it out.
“I have bounced back from big defeats before but you get older, maybe the system for handling pressure is not there for me now.
“Of course what had happened in Belfast came into my mind from 8-6. I was still trying to stay positive, and I had two opportunities in the last frame. It doesn’t matter what you did all week, that is the moment you have to do it.
“And until I get over the line in a similar position in another tournament then I have am going to have these demons in my head.
“Of course the nerves can get to you, however experienced. I had it in the last frame. But the very top players right now, they are the ones that keep it under check and steamroller over the line.
“It doesn’t matter what my family or friends might tell me about how well I played all week, this is going to hurt for a while.
“And only a big win and getting over the line in a similar position in a final will help – if I can get in that position again. Of course the nerves can get to you, however experienced. I had it in the last frame. But the very top players right now, they are the ones that keep it under check and steamroller over the line.”
However there was backing for Higgins from Robertson and also the watching Ronnie O’Sullivan and Jimmy White.
Robertson said: “John is still an incredible player. Look at how he demolished Ronnie in the final of the Players Championship this year. But losing close ones might even be connected to him losing so much weight.
“Your nerves might react differently in your body under pressure, maybe he is being too hard on himself. I expect him to win again.”
Six-time world champion O’Sullivan, 45, who lost all five of his finals last season, said: “I wouldn’t read too much into those comments. With age you don’t get over the line as easily as once you did.
“It may mean that instead of winning four or five titles a season he might just nick one or two.”
And six-time Crucible runner-up White said: “John is obviously a bit disappointed there right after the match is over. But what he said about he can’t compete with the top boys – I don’t believe that for a minute.
“He is an unbelievable player and still going for all his shots. He isn’t hiding from the winning line, it just didn’t happen for him in these last two finals.”
However Australian Robertson, 39, believes he may have finally found the key to winning a second world title 11 years after his first and sole Crucible success to date.
He added: “It is a sweet one having lost this English Open final 9-8 to Judd Trump last season. A few years ago without changing the momentum in this final I would have lost it 9-5.
“When the momentum is going against you and John is going all guns blazing you can get put on the back foot, think too much, try and be too precise and lose rhythm.
“I can’t get bogged down as has happened at the World Championship so this was another wake-up call to keep the momentum, or go and grab it back. You can’t think too much.
“I think that second world title is coming. I have no doubts I could go out now and win it three of the next four years, or another two times in a row, I have the confidence and belief in my ability.
“But there are guys who want to throw the shackles around my ankles and drag me into an ordinary match.”