A decade on from their first Crucible final, Mark Selby and John Higgins will meet in the final of the 2017 Betfred World Championship in Sheffield.
The pair will meet for the fifth time at the Crucible following previous encounters in 2005-7 and 2009. Three of their four previous meetings went the way of Scotland’s Higgins, but in recent years defending champion Selby has established himself as the sport’s pre-eminent player and win or lose this weekend is guaranteed to end the season ranked as the world’s number one player for a sixth consecutive year.
Selby was pushed all the way by China’s Ding Junhui in a classic semi-final, a repeat of last year’s World Championship final. Having resumed locked at 12-12 following three sessions of high-quality snooker, it was Selby who won four of the first five frames today to seize the initiative and despite a late rally from Ding, eventually get over the line a 17-15 winner.
In doing so, Selby ensured that he will not only end the season ranked as world number one, but in doing so become the first player to break the £1m barrier during the two-year ranking period having secured at least £160,000 from this tournament. He will now be looking to become only the fourth player to win back-to-back Crucible crowns in the tournament’s 40-year history (Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan), and in doing so equal the record of five ranking event victories in a single season, set by Stephen Hendry and Ding Junhui.
Opponent Higgins will be chasing his own place in history however as he looks to join Ronnie O’Sullivan as a five-time world champion with victory on Monday evening. In contrast to Selby, his path to the final was surprisingly more straight-forward as he dominated 2013 runner-up Barry Hawkins to win 17-8, needing just a single frame of the final session to secure victory with a break of 120.
Since the early stages of the tournament Higgins has looked like the man to beat in the bottom half of the draw, wins against Martin Gould, Mark Allen and Kyren Wilson seeing him through to the one-table set-up for the first time since 2011. Success against Hawkins puts him into the final for the sixth time, his only defeat having come back in 2001 against O’Sullivan.
Some in the game questioned whether Higgins could again battle for top honours in the sport following a drop in form following his fourth world title back in 2011. A return to form in 2015, however, saw him claim three further ranking titles, before he added victories at the China Championship, Champion of Champions and Championship League this season to remind the snooker world that he can never be written off. He is looking to become the oldest world champion since Ray Reardon lifted his sixth world crown back in 1978.
So who will come out on top? Both play a relatively similar game, world-class in both the tactical and scoring departments, setting them apart as the two strongest all-round players in the sport today. For that reason it is difficult to call a winner, Selby having won their most recent encounter 6-5 in the quarter-finals of the UK Championship, while Higgins claimed a dominant 9-4 victory in the semi-finals of the International Championship in 2015.
Selby will begin as favourite given his track record at the majors over the past 12 months, having won the sport’s three most lucrative ranking events of 2016 and looking to further cement his position at the head of the rankings with another major victory in Sheffield.
As Higgins has proven so many times already in his career however, he can never be discounted and we should have a thrilling four-session final in store.
The action gets underway at 2pm on Sunday, live on the BBC and Eurosport.