THAT John Higgins is in the form of his life in his 30th year as a professional snooker player is hard to believe. Even Higgins himself is surprised at just how well he has been playing over the past few months.

It is what, or rather who, is behind his good form though, that is the most startling revelation.

While it seems far-fetched, Higgins’ impressive season, in which he has won his first major event in three years, comfortably beating a string of the world’s top players in the process, is down to two of his greatest and most fearsome rivals – Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Hendry.

The man dubbed “The Wizard from Wishaw” is in no doubt it is these two legends he has to thank for the tip which helped him rediscover, or even surpass, the form that saw him become one of snooker’s greats over the past three decades.

“I’ve always been a tinkerer with my cue and so towards the turn of the year, I went to a place in the north of England and I was putting a new titanium ferrule on my cue and I was chatting to the guy in the showroom, who was an ex-professional,” Higgins says. “He started telling me about this chat Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Hendry had had during lockdown on Instagram and they’d mentioned how far away I addressed the cue ball.

“And so this ex-pro asked me if I had ever thought about getting a bit closer to the cue ball and I was thinking, I don’t know what he’s talking about, I don’t think I am far away from it.

“I very rarely do this but I went on to Youtube and looked at some of my old matches from when I was younger and right enough, my cue tip was always much closer to the cue ball than it is now I got older.

“It had obviously just gradually started moving further away and I never noticed – bad habits like that can creep into your game. So at the turn of the year, I just constantly had it in my head to try to get a bit closer to the cue ball and since then, my results have picked right up.”

O’Sullivan, in particular, may well be regretting being quite so liberal with his advice, especially as Higgins’ Players Championship victory last month concluded with a resounding win over the Englishman in the final.

Higgins, however, doubts O’Sullivan is kicking himself for his input.

“I think Ronnie’s won enough over the years to not be too bothered that I beat him,” he says. “I think he might actually be quite pleased to see me back playing well and competing for the big events because he might have been thinking it’d been too long since I’d been competing for the big titles.

“So I just try to keep that tip in my head. It’s not going to work every time, you’ll still put in bad performances but it seems to be making me more consistent, which is good.”

Higgins’ Players Championship triumph, the 31st ranking title win of his career, was accomplished in style, only losing four frames during the tournament. It has also been a welcome boost to his confidence after a number of years bereft of both titles and, at times, form.

“It was brilliant to win because even though I’ve won tournaments in the past, when you go without winning, your confidence erodes,” the Scot says. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past because that’s gone so the previous few years when I hadn’t won anything, you do tend to overthink things. So to win it, especially in the fashion I did, was really satisfying.”

Higgins’ win in Milton Keynes has also ensured the 45-year-old goes into the World Championships, which begin at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre today, as one of the favourites.

With four world titles – his first coming in 1998 – Higgins knows exactly what it takes to successfully navigate the sport’s toughest test. He is seeded fifth, behind top seed and defending champion, O’Sullivan, although many are tipping Higgins to win the title, 10 years after his last world crown.

After such an extended spell at the top of the game, Higgins is well used to handling pressure, but he has found the nerves have worsened as the years go on, and he would far rather be heading into the showpiece event as an underdog.

“The nerves are far worse now,” he says. “When I was younger, I’d be a little bit nervous but I’d be excited too but now I’m older, the dread takes over. It leaves you straight away when you break off, but it’s definitely there beforehand. I’d rather no one was talking about me and then you can sneak in the back door.

“I’ve been doing this for a lot of years and so if people still think I’ve got a realistic chance of doing well then that’s nice, but it’s really difficult, there’s some amazing players playing some great snooker at the moment so it’s going to be who handles everything best over the 17 days.”

This World Championships come a year into the pandemic but will bring hope that the world is, slowly but surely, starting to return to normal.

With snooker having been one of the first sports to re-start competitive action last year, Higgins and his fellow competitors have had something close to a normal season, albeit in auditoriums with no crowd present. However, the news that the World Championships will serve as one of the test events in the government’s pilot scheme to return fans safely to sporting and cultural venues was a welcome development.

The first round will be played in front of a 33 per cent capacity crowd, with numbers gradually growing before the final will see a capacity crowd packed into the sport’s most famous venue.

Higgins will kick-off his campaign against a qualifier, so neutrals were disappointed to see old foe and seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry knocked out in the qualifying rounds into the main draw proper.

The 52-year-old, who has come back from a nine-year hiatus, scored a nostalgia-inducing victory over old foe, Jimmy White in the first qualifying round, but was dispatched by Xu Si in the second and has not looked at his best. Nevertheless, Higgins is unequivocal when asked if he fancied a match-up in the future with his compatriot and old adversary.

“No. Definitely not. I think I’d be on a hiding to nothing if I played Stephen to be honest. So I definitely do not want to play him, I’d want to leave that one well alone.”

The pair have played 39 times, with the head-to-head record tied at 18 wins each, with three draws before Hendry retired in 2012.

There had been whispers of a Hendry comeback for some time but Higgins was shocked at the return of his fellow Scot, who has been handed a two-year invitational tour card by the sport’s promoter, Barry Hearn.

But despite his reluctance to face Hendry, he is delighted to see him back.

“I didn’t see it coming. We’d all been hearing whispers that he was back practicing but I thought he was only doing it to play on the Seniors tour. But then Barry Hearn asked if he wanted to try to make it on to the main tour and he took him up on it,” he says.

“It’s a shame he’s not played more since the turn of the year but it was an incredible draw in qualifying against Jimmy White. He was one of my heroes growing up and so it’s great to see him back playing.”

Higgins may not be thinking about retirement quite yet, but he knows he is far closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

And while he does not have any plans to hang up his cue, he is certain he will not be emulating Hendry with any kind of comeback; once he calls it quits, that will, he insists, be it for good.

“I couldn’t see myself doing what Stephen’s done, having nine years away from the game and then coming back,” he says.

“I think I’ll continue playing and then when I decide to pack it in, that’ll be it.

“I could never see myself coming back after a nine-year break in the way he’s done.”

So with any comebacks off the cards, Higgins knows it is now or never if he is to add to his tally of world titles.

And thanks to O’Sullivan and Hendry’s advice, which will be ringing in Higgins’ ears over the next two weeks, it will take quite an opponent to stop him.