John Higgins won the 28th ranking title of his career – matching the tally of Steve Davis – by beating David Gilbert 10-5 in the final of the International Championship in Daqing, China.
Higgins pulled away from 4-4 to win six of the last seven frames to win the £125,000 top prize, snooker’s biggest cheque on offer outside the UK and the Scot’s biggest since he won his fourth world title in 2011.
Wishaw’s 40-year-old Higgins now stands level with his boyhood idol Davis on 28 ranking crowns, one ahead of Ronnie O’Sullivan though still eight behind Stephen Hendry’s seemingly impregnable record of 36.
In fact Higgins endured a 29-month drought without a ranking title after winning the 2012 Shanghai Masters, but has returned to form in emphatic fashion this year. He captured the Welsh Open in February and the Australian Goldfields Open at the start of the current season in July, and has now emerged victorious from a tournament he described himself this week as the second biggest on the calendar.
The world number 12 won seven matches in all during the event, highlighted by a 6-0 thumping of Shaun Murphy, a 9-4 defeat of world number one Mark Selby and today’s win over Gilbert in a high quality final.
Tamworth’s 34-year-old Gilbert, the world number 40, had never previous been beyond the last 16 of a full ranking event but played the best snooker of his career this week. There was no fairytale ending for the former potato farmer, but a cheque for £65,000 and a leap up the world ranking list are welcome consolations.
Gilbert settled quickly into the final and led 2-1 after a break of 100 in the third frame. Higgins took the next two with 66 and 69 then stole the sixth on the colours to lead 4-2. Gilbert fought back impressively with 77 and 59 to square the match, though it was Higgins who won the last of the afternoon session with a run of 108 to lead 5-4.
He continued in the same vein as the evening session got underway as breaks of 129 and 88 extended his lead to 7-4. Gilbert pulled one back with a 51 and looked set to win frame 13 until he broke down on 54. Higgins made a vital 88 clearance to lead 8-5 at the interval. And he soon closed out victory, helped by runs of 52 and 56 in the next two frames.
“It’s a special moment for me to get to 28 ranking titles,” said Higgins, who turned pro in 1992. “Steve Davis was my hero growing up and back then I would never have dreamed I could equal any of his records. It’s a moment I will never forget. Stephen Hendry is still well out in front and maybe I won’t get to 36, but you never know. I’ve won three this year so if I keep doing that it will only take me three more years. I love snooker and I don’t think I’ll ever retire.
“I think this has been the best I have ever played continually throughout a whole tournament. I only played one bad mini-session against Michael Holt. The way I played against Murphy and Selby – I can’t play much better than that.
“Today was David’s first final and he should be proud of himself because he played some great frames. It was a closer match than 10-5 suggests. He’s got a taste for it now and hopefully he’ll have many more finals.
“I’ve had spells in my career where I have not won a tournament for three or four years, then I’ve had bursts where I have won a few. I’m very pleased to have won three this year, it’s a great achievement given how many great players are out there.
“My next goal is to win another world title. If I can produce that sort of form I’ll have a good chance at Sheffield.”
Gilbert said: “It feels strange to say I’m disappointed to lose in a final because I’ve never got close to one before. I had my chances but I missed a few, and John kept clearing up. It was in the back of my mind not to miss because I knew he’d always punish me, and sometimes the harder you try, the harder the game gets.
“At least I’m going home with £65,000, which is more money than I’ve ever seen. My wife moved into our new house this week so I’m sure she’s already ordering new carpets and furniture.
“I just want to say thank you to the people of Daqing for being so kind to me, it has been a great event and the conditions have been superb. It was a great atmosphere tonight and I hope we come back next year.”
Most Career Ranking Titles
Stephen Hendry 36
John Higgins 28
Steve Davis 28
Ronnie O’Sullivan 27
Mark Williams 18
Ding Junhui 11
Neil Robertson 10
Jimmy White 10
John Parrott 9
Peter Ebdon 9