The semi-finals of the 2018 Snooker World Championship reached a dramatic finish on a day where the old guard turned back the clock to the delight of a delirium Crucible faithful.
Mark Williams and John Higgins have won the sport’s biggest prize on eight occasions, the pair winning their first world title 18 and 20 years ago respectively.
But tonight they turned on the style, their experiencing showing in two remarkable matches.
During the afternoon Higgins had ground out a gutsy victory over the upcoming sensation Kyren Wilson who battled hard but fell short to the sheer consistency and pressure that Higgins laid before him.
Wilson had to make up two frames on the Scot, going into their final session 13-11 down, but failed to stop the inevitable tsunami and Higgins advanced to yet another final in Sheffield with a 17-13 win.
Then later on in the evening Williams somehow found the strength to overcome a resilient Barry Hawkins 17-15 just before midnight in one of the greatest matches ever played at the famous venue.
Barry Hawkins 13-11 Mark Williams (Morning session)
As the final day of the semi-final appeared over the horizon there was no doubt that experience would be tantamount to success under the severest of pressure.
After their nip and tuck first session yesterday Hawkins and Williams failed to break away from each other on numerous occasions, with The Hawk holding a 9-7 advantage against the former two time champion at The Crucible.
Hawkins had reached four out of the last five semi-finals but had only reached the showpiece final on one occasion, losing out to Ronnie O’Sullivan 18-12 in 2013.
So there was no doubt that he would be eager to race out of the blocks, and in the end he did just that with a fast flowing fluid 128 break to increase the lead to three frames. It was Hawkins’s joint third highest break of the tournament and a statement of intent.
Yet Williams has a knack of responding when backed into a corner and the following frame his tactical nous switched on, perplexing Hawkins with a delicate snooker on the blue. It was enough to force an error and with the red in open play the Welshman cleaned up to reduce the deficit two just two frames.
By now the momentum had started to swing. Awkward angles turned into serene shots for Williams as he turned the screw, and even with a bunch of five reds grouped together at the southern end of the table his cue action worked a treat, finishing off the frame in a flourish.
With just one frame left before the mid-session interval it was vital for Hawkins to end the Williams charge and at 44-0 up he thought he’d managed it, but a poor positional shot from the blue forced a long shot on the red which ricocheted off the edge of the pocket.
He didn’t return to the table. Williams in the most simplistic of descriptions couldn’t miss, stealing the frame from a shell-shocked Hawkins in an act of potting pilferage.
The pair returned looking to gain a quick advantage and it was Hawkins who laid down a marker first, pouncing on a missed yellow from Williams mid-way through the frame with a 35 break to add to his earlier 53 to lead again.
As the crowd became more and more involved in the action the players responded alike, Hawkins upping his 128 to a 133 break. Williams, up against the wall, then turned on the style with a facile 103 break of his own.
To say it wasn’t surprising that Williams started the final frame of the session well would be an understatement. No matter what the angle of the balls they flew into the pocket in a manner which even Pythagoras would’ve failed to understand.
But concentration at this level is key and once the Welshman missed an easy black it was curtains for him, The Hawk powering in a 73 break to snatch the frame from Williams’s grasp. On a knife edge, Hawkins went into the final session with a 13-11 advantage.
John Higgins 17-13 Kyren Wilson (Afternoon session)
Wilson had it all to do against the veteran Higgins going into their final session on Saturday afternoon, but there was little doubt that he had the game to overcome a two frame deficit and reach his maiden final.
Starting off with 96 break was the ideal start for Wilson. Get the crowd up and go from there. The impression was that those watching on were in the corner of the underdog and the cheers from the frame winning pot did nothing to silence that claim.
The Englishman had not been level with Higgins at all during the match so the fact the gap had reduced to one spoke volumes of the recovery that Wilson had made deep into the previous session.
But capitalising on that would be crucial and in the next frame he failed to do so, missing long pots on three occasions to allow Higgins back to the table to clean up. A let off was an understatement and the Scot never looked back.
The last time Higgins had won the world title in Sheffield was in 2011 but in truth you wouldn’t have thought so as a 136 break extended his lead to three, with the granitic like face of Wilson staring on in admiration and disbelief from his chair.
Yet Wilson still responded against the run of play. By now it was becoming a trend that Higgins would take charge in every frame and if Wilson would win it he’d have to come from behind.
Which he did in the 28th frame. A shocking miss on the blue from The Wizard of Wishaw allowed Wilson the chance to salvage the situation and get within two again.
Class and experience proved the difference though, with Higgins crashing in a ton break in the enxt frame before rounding off the match in style to advance to his second final in a row and seventh in total.
The Scot said: “I’m proud 20 years later after winning my first one so to compete in another one is fantastic.
“I felt last year was my best ever chance to win it as I felt I was so far in-front, but we’ll see what happens in the final as anything can happen.
“Of course it would feel special to match Ronnie’s five titles and to match it would be an amazing feeling.
“He put me under pressure ok but he couldn’t get level with me. He just reminds me of Selby in 2007, different players but they’ve got a certain aura about him.
“His long potting is phenomenal and a he’s guy that learns every single match and I’m sure he’ll be doing big things in the future.”
Wilson said: “I just really struggled to settle in the first session as it was different compared to the two table setup and all eyes are on you, but I’ve had the experience and it should stand me in good stead in the future.
“For me John is the greatest match-player of all time so at times you have to try and force it as opportunities are far and few between, but if you can punish him off any mistake it would hurt him.
“He’s won it four times and he turns into a different animal at this stage of the tournament.
“But l felt like I’ve got the game and the mentality, and I produce my best stuff here so if I can do that I’ll be very excited about my future.”
Mark Williams 17-15 Barry Hawkins (Evening session)
The pair had already entertained the morning crowd with exhibition shots, exquisite tons and an endearment to the game they have played since they were young.
Back then Williams was one of the three members labelled the ‘class of 92’, and there was a certain irony that one of the others was of course Higgins. We would soon know that history would repeat itself as the clock struck midnight.
There was a sense that the latter semi-final could finish into the early hours of the morning, but in all honesty as the two went into the mid-session interval tied at 14 a piece there wasn’t much indication that’d be the case.
On return though what was an already memorable match turned itself into one of the greatest ever played on the Crucible stage.
With both players struggling to find form it was Hawkins who hit the front again, capitalising on a missed red to the left corner pocket from Williams to lead 15-14.
The Welshman had not led throughout the match at any point but somehow triumphed over the next two frames, winning the first from 44-26 down after The Hawk had missed an easy blue, and then grinding out the next after the pair had missed pots on pretty much every colour.
Those two frames last nearly one hour and half but they were nothing on the last as the gravity of the situation became clear to see.
It looked like Hawkins would clean up from the start with another enormous break but after an awkward shot on the green Williams returned to the table and the pair traded sublime safety shots which needed the referee’s close eye on the placement of two of them.
It was fitting really that it would go down to the last black on the table, bringing back memories of that infamous 1985 final. And two men who started playing snooker then will contest it. At a combined age of 85. Incredible really.
Williams said: “I’m over the moon to get into the final because I couldn’t get away from him over two days.
“It was almost a comedy or errors towards the end and I actually forgot how good the atmosphere was tonight in a match where my legs nearly fell off.
“Twelve months ago I was really thinking about retiring, even if I don’t win it then it woud be one of my best ever seasons.
“I’m playing one of the best players ever who I’ve been playing with since I’ve been 13.
“Towards the end I just wanted to get over the line, I don’t remember anything much about those last two frames because I was absolutely gone.
“This season I’ve probably been the form player and I’ve won three tournaments myself.”
Hawkins said: “I played pretty well most of the tournament but tonight I let myself down a little bit there.
“I thought I scored better than he did but he played a lot of good safety’s and batted away like he does, he’s one of the all-time greats.
“I thought the cushions were playing dead tonight for some reason so I second guessed myself.
“It’s good to see both of them going strong given both of them are in their 40s so there shoe for me there.”