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A Final For The Ages

As 2018 draws to a close we reflect on the best match of the year: the Betfred World Championship final.

Two giants of the baize clashed in the first ever Crucible final to be contested between two players over the age of 40. Mark Williams defeated John Higgins 18-16 in what turned out to be a true classic. In terms of the drama and the standard of play, it stands alongside the all-time great Crucible finals.

The snooker public were captivated by a match which saw Williams aiming for his first world crown since 2003 and Higgins searching for an illusive fifth world title.

Welshman Williams had enjoyed a dramatic resurgence across the season as a whole, winning a ranking title for the first time since 2011 at the Northern Ireland Open and adding further ranking silverware to his collection at the German Masters.

Scotland’s Higgins was appearing in his second consecutive world final, having suffered a heart-breaking 18-15 defeat at the hands of Mark Selby a year earlier.

Williams could have been forgiven for coming into the final somewhat jaded as he only just overcame Barry Hawkins in a nerve-shredding semi-final 17-15, which ended in the small hours of the morning. After completing his media obligations, the down to earth Welshman re-fuelled with a 2:30am pit stop at a city centre kebab shop.

That seemed to do the trick as when play got underway, just a matter of hours later, he showed no signs of tiredness. After moving 4-0 ahead and being pegged back to 7-7, Williams went on to win seven consecutive frames to lead 14-7.

Higgins was on the brink of a potential defeat with a session to spare, but summoned an epic fightback to level at 15-15, making some astonishing clearances along the way.

Williams regained the upper hand and led 17-15 and looked set to get over the line in the 33rd frame until he missed a match-ball pink. Higgins produced another nerveless clearance of 68 to keep his hopes alive.

Williams was typically undeterred and knocked in a break of 69, initiated by a sensational red to the middle pocket. That secured a glorious 18-16 victory and his third world title. He then stoically fulfilled a mid-tournament pledge to do his post-match press conference naked if he won the title.

Hector Nunns is one of snooker’s most prominent journalists and is author of the 2017 book ‘The Crucible’s Greatest Matches’. This year’s final came too late to make the book, but Nunns rates the 2018 final as one of the all-time best.

He said: “Sport conjures up moments when the hype proves to be fully justified, and the classic ‘Class of 1992’ final in 2018 was just such an occasion. Mark Williams saw his phlegmatic character tested to the limit as John Higgins came back to 15-15 from 15-10 down with so much at stake, and perhaps only a player as laid-back as the Welshman could have shrugged that off and kicked on once again, also overcoming that missed pink to close it out at 17-15.

“A battling and proud Higgins dug so deep to make a fight of it, and by his own admission that huge effort and the subsequent disappointment carried over the summer into the start of the season. The enduring rivalry between two players who have sparred since junior days was the backdrop narrative to this final, and Williams honouring a rash pledge to do his winner’s press conference in the nude spoke volumes for his integrity and gave us in the media headlines and back page pictures to die for.”

The famous 1985 black ball final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor may never be beaten in terms of its edge-of the-seat conclusion, but today’s standard of play is light years ahead. There wasn’t a single century break in the 1985 final, while this year there were six tons and 24 more breaks over 50.

Six-time Crucible king Davis believes that the level of performance in the modern game is so high, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to push barriers in terms of the standard at the top level.

Davis said: “The new brigade can’t really improve on the standard the top guys are already producing. There was a time when you go back to my era and Stephen Hendry’s period, when the ceiling of achievement had not yet been reached. The current era are getting to the point where they are close to the level that humans are physically capable of reaching on a snooker table. Therefore, the new guys aren’t leapfrogging over the top like we did in the 80s and Hendry did in the 90s. To do the same with John Higgins, Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan is near on impossible.”

A World Championship final isn’t just special for the two players doing battle on the baize. It is the highlight of any referee’s career too. Overseeing snooker’s biggest match holds special significance for Brendan Moore as he is born and bred in Sheffield. He took charge of his second World Championship final in May, having already donned the white gloves for Mark Selby’s 18-14 win over Ronnie O’Sullivan in 2014.

“This year’s final goes down as the best I’ve ever refereed,” said Moore. “My first world final with Ronnie and Mark was fantastic. However, the atmosphere this year combined with the way this match went made it extra special. The comeback from John on that final night session was just awesome. The fact that other than the opponent I was the next person to shake hands with the winner was a great feeling in itself. It’s the only game I have refereed which I have watched back from first ball to last just to witness the actual match again.”

Defeat hit Higgins hard. Despite reaching September’s China Championship final, which he lost 10-9 to Mark Selby, he has openly admitted to suffering a lack of motivation to get back on the baize.

“It still hurts,” reflected the Wizard of Wishaw, several months after the result. “I’ve lost two finals in a row. It has been heart-breaking to pick the cue back out of the case. I was well behind. I was basically looking as if I was out of it. I just didn’t want to lose with a session to spare. Before you know it you are right back in the thick of it. Mark did really well to clear up in the last frame. I suppose it was good, the comeback was on. But I started really badly and he put me under pressure as well.”

For Williams it was a moment which he thought he may never enjoy again, having had to wait since 2003 to appear in another Crucible final. However, the unflappable Williams managed to remain calm in the crucial closing stages.

“Even when I missed the pink at 17-15, there was no tension going through my body,” he recalls. “I knew that if I got a chance in the next frame I would make a decent break. Even if it went 17-17 I would have felt totally calm. I wish I knew why. If you put a heart monitor on me, it wouldn’t be going any faster than as if I was playing in the club.

“I think from the quarter-finals onwards myself against John Higgins was the final that 95 percent of people would have chosen, because we are two of the older players. The younger guys will get their chance. But everyone wanted to see this clash and I don’t think they were disappointed. I don’t think John can play much better than that and I can’t play better than that.”

More Great Crucible Finals

1985 – Dennis Taylor 18-17 Steve Davis
Snooker’s most famous match saw 18.5 million people tune in on television and witness Dennis Taylor complete a fightback of epic proportions in the most dramatic of conclusions. Steve Davis had already won three of his six world titles and had looked nailed on for a fourth when he cruised into an 8-0 lead. However, popular Northern Irishman Taylor clawed his way back into the tie and went on to win a thrilling black ball battle in the decider.

1994 – Stephen Hendry 18-17 Jimmy White
Stephen Hendry and Jimmy White met for the fourth time in a Crucible final in 1994 and it looked as if the Whirlwind was set to land snooker’s biggest prize for the first time when he had the balls at his mercy in the decider. However, with a 37-24 lead, he missed a routine black off the spot and Hendry ruthlessly pounced with a break of 58 to inflict another heart-breaking defeat on his opponent.

2005 – Shaun Murphy 18-16 Matthew Stevens
Shaun Murphy and Matthew Stevens produced a blistering standard of snooker in an enthralling final, which saw the Magician fire in 16 breaks over 50 on his way to winning the title. Murphy, age 22, was a 150/1 outsider coming into the event and became the first qualifier since Terry Griffiths in 1979 to lift the trophy.

2011 – John Higgins 18-15 Judd Trump
There was an electrifying atmosphere when one of the sport’s greats met a precociously talented 21-year-old for the world title.  John Higgins carried a 13-12 lead over Judd Trump into the final session, where a raucous crowd greeted the two players. Scotland’s Higgins won four of the last five frames to surge to the line and broke down in tears after clinching the title for the fourth time.