Mark Selby remained on course to become only the fourth player to win back-to-back Crucible crowns as he beat Ding Junhui 17-15 in a superb semi-final at the Betfred World Championship.
Selby will now face John Higgins over 35 frames on Sunday and Monday for the famous trophy and £375,000 top prize. It’s a repeat of the 2007 final which Higgins won 18-13.
Whoever wins this time will smash the record for the most prize money earned in a single season, currently held by Stephen Hendry who banked £740,000 in 1994-95. Victory for Selby would bring him to £932,000 and he is also aiming to win his fifth ranking title of the season which would match the record set by Hendry and Ding.
Having lifted snooker’s most famous trophy in 2014 and 2016, Leicester’s 33-year-old Selby is battling for his third world title and looking to become the only player other than Hendry, Steve Davis and Ronnie O’Sullivan to win it in consecutive years in Sheffield.
He has already won the Paul Hunter Classic, International Championship, UK Championship and China Open this season and has been world number one for 115 consecutive weeks. Selby, in short, is the dominant player in the most competitive era snooker has ever seen. However he will face a fierce test against Higgins, who has the all-round game to match Selby in every department.
The tournament finishes in disappointment for Ding, who scored one of the best wins of his career when he beat Ronnie O’Sullivan in the quarter-finals, but lost to Selby in a close content, just as he did in last year’s final, which finished 18-14. The Chinese star will have to wait another year to fulfil his dream to become the first Asian player to capture the trophy.
An enthralling semi-final was locked at 12-12 going into the concluding session and it was Selby who made the first move with breaks of 74 and 96 to go 14-12 ahead.
Ding made a 52 in winning the next and had a clear chance in frame 28 but missed a red to a top corner when trailing 34-41. Selby eventually took the frame on the colours to lead 15-13 at the interval.
In frame 29, Ding led 42-11 when he was unlucky not to split a cluster of reds in potting the pink. Selby made 42 then trapped his opponent in a snooker on the yellow which yielded the chance to go 16-13 ahead.
Ding hit back to take the next two frames with a top run of 73 to close to 16-15. And he had two scoring chances early in frame 32 but scored just nine points, missing a red and then a blue to a centre pocket. His second error proved his last shot as Selby made a flawless 72.
“It was a great game to be involved in,” said Selby, who has now earned over £1 million at the Crucible. “Ding missed that blue in the last frame, I had resigned myself to going 16-16.
“I was over the moon to come out 12-12 last night because I thought Ding probably deserved the lead. He scored better than me, he played great, his safety was good, he had three centuries last night. All that you’re asking for is to be going into that final session with a chance.
“At the end it was more relief than anything else. In the last frame, I told myself even if it takes you two minutes every shot just make sure you don’t do anything silly, even though the adrenaline was pumping. I knew that that was my chance and if I didn’t take it I think the match would have gone away from me. Every semi-final I’ve won here has been close – I’m only 33 but I feel about 53!
“I can’t wait for tomorrow, hopefully I can get a good night’s sleep and come back fresh tomorrow. It’ll be a fantastic occasion, John is one of the greats of the game, and he’s had a fantastic season.
“To win it for a third time is something I can only dream of. Fingers crossed over the next two days that dream will come true.”
Selby also had kind words for Ding, adding: “This year he knew what to expect on the one table set up and I thought he played fantastic. It was only one or two balls here and there that was the difference between me winning or him winning. As a player he’s matured, as a person he’s matured, his temperament around the table is fantastic. It’s only a matter of time before he comes here and wins it.”
World number four Ding said: “If I hadn’t missed that blue it would definitely have gone to a final frame. Mark played well in the end. I should have won more frames and taken my chances earlier in the session. I had too many mistakes but that is what happens.
“I can see myself improving a lot, I played with more confidence and more aggression. The fans need to see more snooker like that. They want to see fast snooker and centuries. I’m happy with how I did this time.
“I’m disappointed to lose when I played well, but sometimes you have to take it, because it is sport. I’ve got more experience here, I’m just over 30 and there is still a long way to go and many years left here. I believe next year will be good.”