John Higgins won a record fifth Welsh Open title on Sunday after an entertaining 9-7 triumph over Barry Hawkins at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff.
The Scot nearly always just about had the edge over Hawkins right the way through the contest but the latter battled valiantly to keep in touch and fell just short of taking the encounter to a decider.
In sealing his success with a break of 64 in the last frame, Higgins became only the third player after countryman Stephen Hendry and old rival Ronnie O’Sullivan to reach the number 30 milestone of ranking event victories.
It’s also the 42 year-old’s second of the season and, adding to the four crowns that O’Sullivan has already captured and the brace bagged by Welshman Mark Williams, it means that the seemingly immovable “Class of 1992” has now accumulated an incredible eight ranking trophies during this campaign.
Higgins, a four-time world champion and former world number one, began the final as the obvious favourite but knew that he wouldn’t have it his own way against a player experiencing a return to form after a difficult spell both on and away from the baize.
Hawkins candidly revealed details of a devastating loss in his personal life towards the end of the World Championship last year, which has naturally taken him quite some time to recover from.
Perhaps as a result, it appeared as though the Englishman had an extra will to win, such was the manner in which he was able to keep fighting back against an opponent who often threatened to pull away in the evening session.
The first four frames earlier in the day were traded despite the fact that Higgins compiled a brace of huge century breaks, with Hawkins pivotally pinching both of the other frames on the black.
The former World Grand Prix champion subsequently fired in a 130 of his own to help establish a 4-2 advantage before Higgins took four frames on the spin either side of the break in play to build a modicum of control.
Another two tons, runs of 103 and a superb 138, saw Hawkins come back strongly again to tie the game at 6-6 and it looked as though another Home Nations tournament was heading for the distance – just as had been the case in four out of the previous seven finals in the series since its inception in 2016.
But Higgins regained the advantage with a 66 and then crucially prevailed in a tight 14th frame to go a commanding two frames up with only a possible three to play.
Hawkins, bidding for a fourth ranking event title in his career, held on again with an excellent 82 but Higgins maintained his composure and avoided the final frame shoot out with a champion’s break in the last frame.
The defeat for the “Hawk” represented a double blow as, by failing to claim the £70,000 top prize, the 38 year-old has now no hope of being able to qualify for this month’s lucrative Players Championship – which features the top 16 money-earners from this season.
Still, it was pleasing for his fans to see him fighting in the business end of a competition again and his focus will likely now be turning to the World Championship, where he has enjoyed a terrific record for the last five years.
For Higgins, it’s another notch on his belt and more silverware to bring home to his already glittering trophy cabinet.
The “Wizard of Wishaw”, after a disappointing defeat in the UK Championship in December, expressed intentions that the moment to call time on his career might be drawing nearer.
However, Higgins has often found ways to silence the doubters, on this occasion including himself, when inadvisable thoughts that his best days are behind him have crept in.
Like contemporaries O’Sullivan and Williams, Higgins will head into this year’s Crucible, where of course he was the runner-up last year, with renewed vigour that he may yet be able to add another world title to his collection.