Higgins hits form after slow start

John Higgins began what could be an emotional journey to a fourth Crucible title with a hint of early anxiety followed by a masterclass this evening.

John Higgins began what could be an emotional journey to a fourth Crucible title with a hint of early anxiety followed by a masterclass this evening.

The champion of 1998, 2007 and 2009 looked to be carrying tension in his cueing arm in the opening stages of his clash with Stephen Lee, but three centuries after the mid-session interval showed why the Scot is the man they all fear this year.

He leads 6-3 overnight and will surely tomorrow book a clash with Rory McLeod, the 40-year-old coach of Qatar's national team who earned his place in the last 16 with an attritional 10-6 win over Ricky Walden.

Higgins made a greater impact on last year's Betfred.com World Championship after his shock second-round exit at the hands of Steve Davis, as he became caught up in a newspaper sting which not only thrust his name to the top of news bulletins but briefly put his career in jeopardy.

On the morning of the final, all the focus was on Higgins rather than title contenders Neil Robertson and Graeme Dott, and the Scot was served with a six-month ban in September.

The punishment, backdated to May, was handed for breaching rules around betting, but the most serious charges relating to fixing frames in future matches were dropped.

Higgins has been warmly welcomed back to the tour, and since his return in November the 35-year-old has won an incredible five tournaments already - a European PTC event in Hamm, the UK Championship, Welsh Open, Hainan Classic and Scottish Professional Championship.

A sixth trophy could be less than a fortnight away, and what a moment that would provide.

Not only has he endured professional torment in the past 12 months, he also lost his father and biggest supporter, John senior, to cancer in February.

Sheffield's welcome for Higgins was generous, and after dropping the opening frame he began to move through the gears.

Breaks of 56 and 70 helped him to a 3-1 interval lead, but it was after the short break that the Crucible saw the best of Higgins, with runs of 132, 101 and 131 showing it is not just Ronnie O'Sullivan capable of such destructive form.

The only concern for Higgins will be that he did not develop an even more commanding lead, given Lee's highest break was a mere 43.

Higgins road-tested his form for the trip to Sheffield by routing Stephen Hendry 5-0 at the Scottish Professional Championship last week and it is not only the sponsors who make him the man to beat at the Crucible - his fellow Scotsman Dott sees it the same way.

"It's fair to say John Higgins would be favourite, because of the way he's been playing," Dott said, after beating Mark King 10-7.

Dott held off King, who set the highest break of this year's championship with 138, to clinch a second-round match against Ali Carter.

Dott hopes he has settled into the tournament but admitted: "I don't think the nerves ever go away, it's the Crucible.

"You get nervous driving here."

And while if he cannot win the title himself he is backing Higgins to go all the way, Dott recognised O'Sullivan's 10-2 demolition of Dominic Dale had been highly impressive.

"If Ronnie played left-handed he'd be a threat, he's that talented," Dott said.

"If he finds his game and a bit of form he could take a lot of stopping."

Martin Gould ended Marco Fu's campaign in the first round for the second year in a row, coming from 6-3 behind to win 10-8 and set up a last-16 clash with Neil Robertson's conqueror Judd Trump, which begins tomorrow evening.

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