The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
The years before had set the foundations, but the 1997/98 snooker season underlined once and for all the collective merits of the so-called “Class of 1992”.
John Higgins, Ronnie O’Sullivan, and Mark Williams had of course all proven themselves as serial winners by this point.
But their respective successes in the three biggest tournaments during this campaign provided a glimpse at what was to become a regular feature of the next decade and beyond.
World number one Stephen Hendry remained a constant threat and a valued member of the newest “Big Four”, but by the end of the 1997/98 snooker season the Scot would have suffered at the hands of the triumvirate.
Hendry reached the final of the UK Championship in November – the fifth year in a row that he embarked on a run to that late stage.
However, just like in his first appearance of that sequence in 1993, Hendry was denied by O’Sullivan.
Not long after, the six-time world champion missed out on glory in the Masters as well under the most dramatic of circumstances.
Playing Williams in front of a packed Wembley Conference Centre, the contest incredibly lasted the distance and had to be settled on a re-spotted black.
Hendry, who had led 9-6 and was normally so ruthless under pressure, was the man to buckle, knuckling a tricky but potable ball into the middle pocket to allow the Welsh challenger in for his maiden Triple Crown success.
Still, the then 29 year-old recovered strongly and went to the Crucible in good form, having reached the final of the penultimate ranking event in Plymouth not long after triumphing in the Thailand Masters.
The first round draw of the decade pitted Hendry against old foe Jimmy White, whose plummet had been so severe that he had dropped outside the world’s top 16 and was forced to qualify for Sheffield.
Few expected much from the “Whirlwind”, but White exorcised a few of the demons from his five defeats in a row to Hendry at the venue between 1990 and 1995.
A quite remarkable opening session had his fans in raptures as he established a 7-0 lead, before eventually wrapping up a 10-4 victory.
Countryman Higgins, who had beaten Hendry 9-8 to win the British Open just a week earlier, was the competitor ready to pounce.
While O’Sullivan was the pretender who made more of the headlines – with his mix of style, talent, and controversy – Higgins was actually a more prolific champion.
This was evident throughout the 1997/98 snooker season when Higgins entered the World Championship with a brace of ranking trophies and an astounding five appearances in ranking event finals under his belt.
Hendry had not only ended the season without any silverware from the big three BBC events – four if you include the Grand Prix – for the first time in a decade, but suddenly his once firm stranglehold on the world number one position was weakening too.
O’Sullivan and Higgins had already established a rivalry with each other and that continued throughout this term.
The latter beat O’Sullivan en route to glory in the German Open, before losing to the “Rocket” in the title decider of the Scottish Open in February.
Not long after, the duo crossed paths in another showpiece showdown at the invitational Charity Challenge in Derby.
The event, which began a few years earlier, was broadcast on ITV and saw players compete for charity.
O’Sullivan and Stephen Hendry were ever-presents in the final, with one or both of them featuring among the last two in seven out of the eight editions the tournament was put on.
In 1997, Hendry denied O’Sullivan victory in a decider with an unbelievable maximum break to win 9-8.
That scoreline was the very same twelve months later, with Higgins this time outplaying the UK champion by the narrowest of margins.
When the World Championship came around and with Hendry crashing out, the focus immediately turned to the fortunes of Higgins and O’Sullivan.
When they duly clashed in the last four – O’Sullivan ending White’s resurgent run in the quarter-finals – there was very much a winner-takes-all feeling to the proceedings.
Higgins, perhaps reflecting his overall superior form in the mid-90s, dominated to reach the final, where he met Ireland’s Ken Doherty.
The Dubliner had the opportunity to become the first player to break the “Curse of the Crucible” – in which a first-time champion had never returned to successfully defend the crown.
To his credit he came pretty close, but a superb Higgins was never going to be denied and an 18-12 triumph sealed the first of his four successes in Sheffield.
What’s more, with victory Higgins leapfrogged Hendry in the rankings to end his eight-year reign as the sport’s leading star.
Doherty did enjoy a fruitful year as world champion, though, and managed to collect quite a lot of silverware during the 1997/98 snooker season.
Some, like the rebranded Premier League in which he hammered White 10-1 in the final, or the Malta Grand Prix where he denied that man Higgins, he well and truly earned.
Others, less so – particularly in his home event when a 9-3 defeat to O’Sullivan in the final didn’t prevent him from walking away with the champion’s cheque in Goffs.
O’Sullivan, enhancing his reputation as a rebel, failed a drugs test for cannabis and was stripped of the title.
A memorable campaign, in which the standard at the top of the game was rarely higher, also included a breakthrough triumph for Paul Hunter.
The Leeds man beat Higgins to claim the Welsh Open in January, not too long after his 19th birthday.
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