Defending and two-time champion Mark Selby will cross cues with four time winner John Higgins over the May Bank Holiday Weekend for the 2017 World Snooker Championship and a £375,000 payday – the largest ever dished out in the sport.
This year’s finalists booked their berths in completely contrasting circumstances during Saturday’s play at the Crucible.
An animated Selby emerged on the right side of a pulsating epic with China’s Ding Junhui. In what was a repeat of the final from 12 months earlier, the pair began their last session locked at 12-12 before the Englishman eventually progressed 17-15. Momentum of the tie swung throughout, but the quality remained high with 26 breaks of 50 or above, 6 of which being centuries.
It was the first time this fortnight in Sheffield that Selby had really been pushed, but like he has so often exhibited before, his nerve held and he stood up to the pressure. His opening trio of wins saw him barely touched as he dropped just a total of 11 frames throughout, this included a bruising 13-3 destruction of in-form Number 8 seed Marco Fu.
Selby has had so much success and consistency that he was guaranteed to finish the season as World Number 1 for the sixth consecutive year regardless of whatever happened at this year’s championship.
His immense advantage at the top of the rankings is due to a phenomenal campaign that has already seen him claim the Paul Hunter Classic, International Championship, UK Championship and the China Open. His run this week also means he will become the first player ever to break the one million pound barrier in a two year ranking cycle.
Scotland’s Higgins comfortably came through 17-8 against Barry Hawkins, needing just one frame during their fourth session in the evening. Periods of the match, though, went scrappy with a number of surprising unforced errors, although victory was secured with a classy break of 120.
Much like Selby, Higgins had reached the one-table set up following wins that saw him home with plenty of spare change. Some thought qualifier Martin Gould would spring a shock in Round 1, whilst Mark Allen led 5-2 in their Last 16 meeting before a glorious dual session performance from ‘The Wizard’ got him out of trouble.
This season had been a tale of two halves for John. Throughout November he looked unstoppable as he conquered back to back major invitational titles at the China Championship and then the Champion of Champions in successive weeks. Later on that month he crafted a 147 maximum break during the Northern Ireland Open and just before Christmas was Runner-Up in his home event of the Scottish Open.
However, since the turn of the year, he had not reached a single Quarter-Final in any of the six ranking events played, and lost in the First Round of The Masters. He did win the somewhat unique and obscure Championship League, although that short race tournament is played behind closed doors and not held in that higher regard.
His decline in results had coincided with a unexplained change of cue, yet that decision now looks warranted. Unfancied at the start to make an impression in what is his 25th World Championship, the 41 year old will be the oldest finalist since Ray Reardon in 1982.
THE TALE OF THE TAPE
The 40th year anniversary final of the World Championship moving to the Crucible will be an ‘Auld Enemies’ clash. It is also a repeat of the final from a decade ago when Higgins landed his second crown, nine years from his first. His further wins came in 2009 and 2011.
Selby is looking for an incredible third title in four years after climbing the mountain for the first time in 2014.
Without doubt this brings together two of the greatest players ever. It is the first time in Crucible history that the final will be contested by multiple World Championship winners.
Both share very similar styles; amazing all round games, gritty, determined and the ability to win frames and matches when not on their ‘A’ game. I would use the term ‘hardened matchplayers’, but that can often be seen as a backhanded compliment – these two regularly score heavy, and then some.
Career Head-to-Head meetings see Selby ahead; very few players can boast a positive personal record with Higgins, so that in itself is impressive. In terms of matches held at, what I would call really big events, the score is tied at 4-4.
Their last match-up was at the UK Championship in December which Selby won 6-5. He also won a deciding frame thriller at the 2014 Masters, but that may have been repaying the compliment for when Higgins beat him 13-12 at the 2009 World Championship.
Sure there have been some more one-sided results in their other outcomes, but I have to believe this will be close and should go deep into the fourth and final session come Monday evening.
Higgins will certainly have to up his game from what we saw during his match with Hawkins, but he will of course know that. He may be the only person in the world right now who could ‘OutSelby Selby’ over such a long distance.
I am a little surprised Higgins is priced as big as 12/5 in places – the handicap and total frames markets appeal to me here.
However, saying that, I did tip Selby in my tournament preview and I am sticking with it.