John Higgins and Mark Williams will face each other in a World Championship final for the first time in their illustrious careers after emerging from tough semi-final encounters on Saturday in Sheffield.
Four-time champion Higgins reached successive Crucible finals as he raised his game at the pivotal moment to see off Kyren Wilson 17-13 after a hard-fought battle.
Wilson was featuring in a maiden World Championship semi-final and gave a great account of himself but could never quite recover from going 3-0 down right at the start of the contest on Thursday, despite on numerous occasions pulling the Scot back to within a single frame.
Higgins compiled a brace of centuries and a 98 break in the last frame to turn on the afterburners at just the right time and advance to his seventh career World Championship final.
Where the “Wizard of Wishaw” managed to produce his best snooker towards the end of his last four affair, the second match concluded in completely contrasting fashion as Williams scrambled over the winning line at the expense of Barry Hawkins in a titanic thriller.
Like Wilson, Williams continuously trailed Hawkins for the entirety of the fixture, albeit he was able to draw level on several occasions – to make it 6-6, 10-10, 14-14, and again at 15-15.
In a bruising battle that finished just before midnight, the Welshman finally got his nose in front and, amid huge tension that saw both competitors twitch a succession of shots, making it a thoroughly entertaining watch for the fans both in the crowd and at home watching on television, Williams eventually scored the frame-winning pink and black for a 17-15 success.
It all meant that it was a fourth time in five years that Hawkins failed in the penultimate round and, while he was nowhere near victories in the previous three editions, the 39 year-old will surely feel that this was an opportunity that slipped through his grasp.
For Williams, it’s a remarkable return to the World Championship final for the first time in 15 years, when he collected the second of his two Crucible crowns.
At 43 and 42 years of age respectively, either Williams or Higgins will become the oldest champion since a 45 year-old Ray Reardon emerged triumphantly way back in 1978.
Whatever happens in their showdown, it’ll be a remarkable, albeit fitting, climax to a campaign that has been dominated by snooker’s Trinity of stars from the Class of 1992.
Ronnie O’Sullivan, a record-equalling five-time ranking event winner from this season, lost in the second round but his contemporaries Higgins and Williams have outdone the favourite by going all the way to the final after enjoying a brilliant period of success themselves.
The duo has won six trophies between them since last summer, including four ranking titles, and their status as two of the best players who have ever lived will only be underlined even further after their displays in this tournament.
Higgins will be trying to erase the disappointment of twelve months ago when he narrowly missed out on a fifth world title after a painful defeat to then defending champion Mark Selby.
Williams, meanwhile, will be seeking to break the record for the longest gap in between triumphs in the blue riband event on the greatest stage of them all.
After careers that have run alongside each other for 26 years and counting, it’s unsurprising that Higgins and Williams have crossed paths on numerous times in the past.
The Scot boasts the superior head-to-head advantage but only by a few wins and it’s actually Williams who has gained the upper hand in their last couple of meetings.
In previous finals, Higgins holds a 4-2 lead and memorably came from 9-5 down to pinch glory in a dramatic UK Championship decider eight years ago.
They have met in three World Championship semi-final ties that have each gone deep so there’s every chance that Sunday and Monday’s bout could be blow for blow as well.
However, in a World Championship final, particularly between two players with so many accolades to extract inspiration from, all that has gone before becomes mostly irrelevant and the outcome will likely spiral down to who wants it the most and, most importantly, who has the bottle at the given moment to see it through to the end.
Under that criteria, you’d have to fancy Higgins that slightly bit more to etch his name on the trophy again and it will also be interesting to see what effect, if any, his extra few hours rest on Saturday evening will have – especially during the opening few frames of the first session.
It would be foolish to write off Williams, though, particularly as he never once gave up in a marathon semi-final that could have really went in any direction.
With respect to Hawkins and Wilson, it’s probably the World Championship final that most people would have desired as it pits two of the sport’s undoubted legends against each other.
Let’s hope then that they can live up to the expectations and deliver a Crucible classic.