John Higgins has trod a precarious path to his fourth world final but has the class to finish the job and land a third Crucible title on Monday night.
The Scot looked down and out when he trailed rising star Jamie Cope 12-10 in the second round but raised his game when it mattered to come through a 13-12 winner. His quarter-final against Mark Selby was, in terms of quality and drama, the match of the tournament and he prevailed by winning the decider in one visit.
And Higgins played sensationally well to lead Mark Allen 13-3 after two sessions of their semi-final, even if he let things slip before scrambling over the line 17-13. “I went out leading 13-3 with no nerves on me but you need nerves to play well here,” he said afterwards.
Nerves are guaranteed for the final and Higgins has responded when put under pressure so many times that he must be backed to keep the butterflies at bay sufficiently to produce his best during the best of 35 frames showpiece finale.
Now 33, he has long been regarded as one of the greatest all round players snooker has ever seen. He mixes deadly safety with accurate long potting and heavy scoring. At times this makes him unplayable.
It could all have been different had his father, John senior, not taken him to a snooker club at the age of nine. Higgins took to the game immediately and by 15 was one of the leading juniors in the country. His first breakthrough was winning the under 16 title at the 1991 World Masters in Birmingham, beating Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams en route.
The three all turned professional the following year and it was Higgins who first got his hands on the famous World Championship trophy. The manner of his 1998 triumph suggested he could bestride the sport in the all conquering way Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry previously had but, with O’Sullivan and Williams having emerged as regular title winners, the era had become so competitive that no one player dominated.
In 2001, Higgins became a father for the first time (he now has three children) and found family life more enjoyable than relentless practice. Therefore, it took him until 2007 to win a second Crucible crown but is looking sharp enough to capture another over the course of the next two days. He would be the oldest winner since Dennis Taylor, at 36, sank that black to beat Steve Davis in 1985.
Standing in his way is Shaun Murphy, seven years his junior and a player who possesses a formidable technique and, just as crucially, a rock solid temperament, even if he let slip a seven frame lead over Neil Robertson in their semi-final. Murphy has the self belief to beat anyone from any position. On his way to landing the 2005 world title he beat Higgins 13-8 in the second round and seemed immune to the unique pressure the intimate Crucible arena generates.
Publicity surrounding the break-up of his marriage does not seem to have affected him and even the boos of some spectators have not prevented him from sticking to his task. Not everyone warms to his persona but surely no true snooker fan can deny his talent.
He led Robertson 14-7 before the pressure told as the Aussie started to find form. Caught at 14-14, many players would have capitulated but Murphy immediately stroked in a century then breaks of 81 and 94 to clinch victory. This was an awesome response when put under the cosh.
Murphy has had a strange season. He lost his opening match in the first four ranking events before winning the fifth, the UK Championship. A couple of quarter-finals since suggested his consistency had returned and he has improved dramatically since falling over the line 10-8 against Andrew Higginson in the first round, hammering Marco Fu 13-3 and fighting past maximum man Hendry 13-11.
Both Higgins and Murphy are capable of keeping cool in the heat of the Crucible cauldron. They have played five times before with Higgins holding a 4-1 advantage. Significantly, though, Murphy’s sole win was that success at the Crucible four years ago.
There will only be one man left standing on bank holiday Monday and my feeling is for Higgins. He has had such an eventful championship that he almost seems destined to win it, probably in very dramatic circumstances.
If he does, as if there was any lingering doubt, he will enter the pantheon of the greats. Only Davis, Hendry and O’Sullivan have won three or more Crucible titles.
Perhaps he should have done so earlier in his career but that is only a reflection of how good a player he was and, indeed, still is.