Barry Hawkins and Mark King will contest Sunday’s Northern Ireland Open final after contrasting last four victories in Belfast.
King’s bid for a maiden ranking event title continued with a surprising 6-2 drubbing of Kyren Wilson, while Hawkins had a much more difficult time of it as he denied the popular Anthony Hamilton in a dramatic – and slightly traumatic – decider.
Both semi-finals provided the opportunity for players who many regard as being among the best ever to have never claimed a ranking title success.
King maintained his quest, dominating the opening exchanges with Wilson to open up a 5-0 cushion.
Despite a late mini-revival from his opponent, who perhaps finally felt the repercussions of a brace of tight tussles with Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams to get to this stage, King held on and deservedly progressed.
With two previous runner-up placings in ranking events in 1997 and 2004, the 42 year-old becomes only the 14th player to have made an appearance in a final in three different decades.
Hamilton had the opportunity to extend that number to 15 later on Saturday evening but was denied in the cruelest of fashions.
In a compelling clash which mixed big breaks with astute tactical play, Hamilton fought back from 4-2 down to Hawkins with runs of 138, 74 and 97 to make it 5-5 and force a final frame shoot-out.
Then, after the duo traded safety shots at the outset of the last frame, Hamilton finally got in with the balls at his mercy, only to feather the white on just 6 points – granting Hawkins the opportunity to make a 59 contribution which effectively won him the frame and match.
It was an unfortunate conclusion to what had otherwise been a wonderful run for Hamilton, and one must wonder if that was the 45 year-old’s last chance to finally etch his name onto some silverware.
For King, only Hawkins now stands in his way of achieving that very feat.
The latter will undoubtedly begin the tie as the favourite, as he looks to add a third ranking title to his CV following previous triumphs in the Australian Open and the Players Championship Grand Final.
Despite reaching the final of the Masters earlier in 2016, Hawkins’ form had dipped so much that his place among the world’s elite top 16 had become under threat.
The 37 year-old appears to have taken to the inaugural Home Nations series, though, as preceding this week’s event he also reached the semi-finals of the initial English Open in October.
Hawkins and King have met ten times in total, with the head-to-head locked at five victories apiece.
However, in solely ranking event affairs, King boasts the advantage with three wins out of four – including their two last meetings which both occurred as recently as in 2015.
Yet, none of these encounters were played over the longer best of 19 format, which does give Hawkins the distinct upper hand given his prior experience in emerging victorious in finals, not to mention his strong displays in recent years at the Crucible during the World Championship.
The first session, as ever, will surely be crucial.
If King can gain a foothold in the match early on then he has every chance of executing a serious tilt at that overdue maiden crown.
Whether he’ll be able to handle the pressure is anyone’s guess.
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