Beauty doesn’t al­ways sur­vive a treach­er­ous red to the mid­dle pocket

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - TOMMY CON­LON

THE world has al­ways been mag­ne­tised by beauty; the realms of art, com­merce and me­dia have wor­shipped it in all its guises for mil­len­nia. But the king­dom of sport, if it gets half a chance, will bury beauty in ev­ery grave it can find.

The es­sen­tial dif­fer­ence is be­tween do­ing and be­ing. In art, beauty just has to be; it is enough that it ex­ists. Sport will show­case beauty too, but it is gen­er­ally the frame not the pic­ture. First, you must do. It is util­i­tar­ian at heart. Its core re­quire­ments are func­tional and prac­ti­cal, not aes­thetic.

Sport’s word for beauty is tal­ent. And it is a golden rule that tal­ent is not enough. It must be pro­duc­tive too. It is merely a raw ma­te­rial. If it is to be use­ful, it must adapt to the in­dus­tri­alised ma­chin­ery of com­pe­ti­tion. If it can­not adapt, it will be dis­carded.

Many is the rough di­a­mond that looked price­less upon dis­cov­ery, but was deemed to be a dud af­ter be­ing pol­ished and put to work. In the back­lot of the great sport­ing arena, way be­yond the flood­lights and the car parks, is the vast slagheap where all th­ese di­a­monds are buried, a dark moun­tain of tal­ent that couldn’t con­form to the im­pla­ca­ble con­di­tions of com­pe­ti­tion.

The grad­ing process is more gen­er­ous than this sounds, be­cause the sport­ing em­pire runs from am­a­teur play in vil­lage fields to Olympic sta­dia and World Cup fi­nals. Par­tic­i­pants with mi­nus­cule amounts of nat­u­ral tal­ent but abun­dant en­thu­si­asm will find some niche or other on the spec­trum. Those with ex­trav­a­gant nat­u­ral gifts and a small mea­sure of de­ter­mi­na­tion will be ac­cepted some­where, ac­cord­ing to the laws of sup­ply and de­mand and sundry other cir­cum­stances. But of course it is those rare spec­i­mens who com­bine vast nat­u­ral abil­ity with a sim­i­lar work ethic and com­pet­i­tive courage who be­come the elite in ev­ery gen­er­a­tion.

This per­pet­ual ten­sion be­tween the se­duc­tions of tal­ent and the cri­te­ria of com­pe­ti­tion is one of sport’s old­est sto­ries. It has be­come over time a sort of moral­ity play, a para­ble on the eter­nal strug­gle be­tween beauty and pragma- tism, be­tween sur­face and sub­stance, be­tween be­ing and do­ing.

The higher up the food chain, the more vis­i­ble this con­flict be­comes. It is not al­ways a black-and-white drama, a cow­boy movie be­tween good­ies and baddies. But if forced to choose, the coaches, scouts and man­agers will gen­er­ally opt for the solid cit­i­zen over the bril­liant-but-brit­tle al­ter­na­tive.

Th­ese gate­keep­ers are all too fa­mil­iar with the range of per­son­al­ity types that their trade pro­duces. They’ve been burned too of­ten by the mag­i­cal but un­re­li­able per­former. In the old westerns, the good guy al­ways wins; in sport, it is char­ac­ter ul­ti­mately that pre­vails.

Ev­ery code of­fers this fable for con­sump­tion. Snooker is one of the games that am­pli­fies it bet­ter than most. Here this univer­sal story be­comes in­ti­mate. The stage on which it is pre­sented mea­sures 11 feet 8.5 inches by 5 feet 10. We there­fore get to see the strug­gle in close up and slow mo­tion.

Last week’s World Cham­pi­onship match be­tween Judd Trump and John Hig­gins served up an ideal rein­car­na­tion of this an­cient Greek drama.

Seven years ago at the same tour­na­ment, Trump ex­ploded onto the sport­ing con­scious­ness with a se­ries of dis­plays that were scan­dalous in their au­dac­ity. Just as Hur­ri­cane Hig­gins had done in the 1970s and Ron­nie O’Sul­li­van in the mid-1990s, Trump’s elec­tri­fy­ing tal­ent was seen to be tak­ing the game to a new fron­tier. He was pot­ting balls from hith­erto in­con­ceiv­able po­si­tions. He con­tin­ued his free­wheel­ing ways into fi­nal where he was fi­nally worn down by his same op­po­nent last week.

Win­ner of four world ti­tles, John Hig­gins is a master tech­ni­cian, the sur­geon gen­eral of the baize; he was long ago anointed an all-time great. In terms of aes­thet­ics he is not in the same league as Trump. In terms of com­pet­i­tive courage, nerve un­der pres­sure and strate­gic in­tel­li­gence, Trump wouldn’t be able to chalk the Scots­man’s cue.

Trump was 21 in 2011. The world was his oys­ter then. He was the heir ap­par­ent, the cham­pion-elect, the su­per­star wait­ing to be crowned. He is still wait­ing. As a boy won­der, he won the Eng­land un­der 15 na­tional ti­tle at the age of 10; at 14 he be­came the youngest player in his­tory to make a max­i­mum 147 in com­pe­ti­tion.

But at the Cru­cible in Sh­effield, year af­ter year, he has run into the world of men; bat­tle-hard­ened men who have taught him the cruel way that his glo­ri­ous, gor­geous skill is not enough. They can tame it and they can beat it. For him it has been both a life les­son and a ca­reer les­son. There are scars all over his art now.

And now 28, he has lost much of his orig­i­nal in­no­cence. His flam­boy­ance has re­ceded, his tough­ness has in­ten­si­fied. Hig­gins is al­most 43, with the mid­dle-aged spread to prove it. He looked beaten when Trump took an 11-9 lead on Wed­nes­day night. The not-so-young pre­tender was show­ing ev­ery sign that he’d learned the lessons of all those trau­matic de­feats. He too was show­ing plenty of bot­tle un­der the cosh.

But Hig­gins ul­ti­mately showed more. He reeled off the next three frames. Trump pro­duced some tremen­dous shots on the colours to take it to a de­cid­ing frame. Hig­gins got in first and, as Steve Davis said on commentary, “went for the throat”. He was now an un­der­taker ad­min­is­ter­ing the last rites, again, to the artist in the arena. Trump was dev­as­tated.

Ding Jun­hui was another bril­liant-but-brit­tle vic­tim of the Cru­cible last week. He was asked af­ter­wards if he still be­lieves he can win the world ti­tle one day. “Be­lief is be­lief,” replied the Chi­nese man, with Con­fu­cian fa­tal­ism, “but matches are truth.”

Beauty is truth too, as the old say­ing goes, but some­times it just won’t sur­vive a treach­er­ous red to the mid­dle pocket.

‘Be­lief is be­lief but matches are truth’

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