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Preview: World Championship Semi-Finals

It’s down to the final four in the 2017 World Championship at the Crucible Theatre.

World Championship Semi-Finals
The final four. Photos credit: Monique Limbos

After three weeks of qualifying action followed by the opening three rounds of the main event in Sheffield, the cream of the crop have certainly risen to the top.

The quartet of remaining contenders all feature in the top sevenĀ in the world rankings, ensuring what promises to be a high quality conclusion to the 40th edition of the sport’s blue riband tournament.

The line-up includes a pair of former champions and a couple of pretenders who have each already reached the final hurdle before in their careers, only to just fall narrowly short.

Reigning champion Mark Selby will meet China’s Ding Junhui in a repeat of an epic showdown for the title twelve months ago.

Selby and Ding were superb in their quarter-final victories over Marco Fu and Ronnie O’Sullivan respectively.

Selby’s utter destruction of Fu to win with a session to spare came with big breaks of 143, 139, and 132 as he lived up to his post second round promise that his best was yet to come.

Ding was made to work a lot harder for his triumph, eventually emerging a 13-10 winner over the five-time world champion, but was supremely confident throughout a clash which has seen him dismantled on many occasions in the past.

The 30 year-old’s warm, emotional embrace with O’Sullivan, who he called his hero and who he wants his standard to emulate, was arguably the moment of the championship so far.

Selby and Ding have conjured up an intriguing rivalry over the course of the last year or so.

The Englishman held off a stirring fight back from his opponent to capture a second world crown before Ding enacted a modicum of revenge by claiming the Shanghai Masters trophy at Selby’s expense last September.

A short time after, they were competing for major honours in another final at the International Championship but this time Selby hammered the challenger 10-1 for a resounding success.

It’s hard to envisage a similar kind of runaway victory for either player over the next three days.

Selby, as the defending champion and the world’s top ranked player by some distance, should rightly begin the affair as the favourite but Ding has demonstrated an aura of composed confidence that we have rarely seen from him over the years.

The Chinese number one was visibly elated at finally beating O’Sullivan in a meaningful encounter for the first time in more than a decade.

There is a small chance that Ding could suffer a hangover of sorts from such an overwhelming glory, but one senses that the former Masters and UK champion has greater aspirations of finally completing a long overdue Triple Crown.

Selby, though, is quite simply in beast mode at the moment and is going to be so difficult to overcome.

It doesn’t seem to matter how he plays – whatever level he comes up with he’ll find a way to compete, and usually win.

Ding can’t afford to lose the first six frames like he did in last year’s final but that’s unlikely to materialise, and I think this has the makings of being very close all the way through to the fourth and final session on Saturday.

In fact, the same can equally be said of the other last four fixture.

Four-time champion John Higgins is back at the single table set-up for the first time since he last lifted the trophy aloft in 2011.

The Scot meets 2013 runner-up Barry Hawkins, who has quietly gone about his business advancing through the rounds, thus continuing a marvellous run of form at the Crucible in recent years.

In fact, this is a third semi-final spot for the “Hawk” since he lost to O’Sullivan in the 2013 final so he evidently feels at home under the bright starry lights of the Crucible.

That said, not many feel as at home as Higgins, who triumphed three times over a five-year spell between 2007 and 2011.

Both Higgins and Hawkins have been solid without being spectacular so far in this event but neither is likely to wilt easily at this late stage of proceedings with so much on the line.

Strangely, given the fact that they have been around the Main Tour for decades, the pair has only met each other seven times outside the Championship League – and they haven’t faced each other at all since 2014.

Higgins has the better head-to-head record, including a first round World Championship victory in 2010, but I don’t think that will count for much this time.

The major difference between them is their frequency of success.

While Hawkins has achieved a significant amount over the last few seasons in joining the elite bracket of competitors, Higgins has been in that company for more than 20 years.

The “Wizard” is more likely to grow in strength with the possibility of success in sight, rather than fumble under the obscene amount of pressure they’ll both be under.

This isn’t to discount Hawkins, but the 38 year-old will probably have to be at his very best to overcome one of the sport’s greatest ever winners.

Whatever the result, let’s hope there are tight and tense climaxes in store because, while wonderful snooker has been played and there has been the odd close tussle, the tournament in general has been a little underwhelming up until this stage.

That can yet change, and for the four players left there is a lot of hard graft in store before there is any chance of being crowned the next world champion.

Indeed, having already won 36 frames to reach this far, another 35 are required in order to be the one pictured under the confetti on Monday night.

Click here to view the draw.

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