JOHN HIGGINS will be aiming for the 26th ranking title of his career and Ben Woollaston his first when they meet in the BetVictor Welsh Open final in Cardiff on Sunday.
Two dramatic Saturday semi-finals left a Scotland v England shoot-out for the £60,000 first prize at the Motorpoint Arena.
Higgins started explosively against Luca Brecel, going 2-0 up with two centuries but the talented Belgian teenager went for his shots and moved 3-2 in front. From 4-4, experience told and Higgins reached his first ranking final since the 2013 Wuxi Classic.
Woollaston led Mark Williams 5-3 and had a golden chance to beat him 6-4 after fluking a snooker behind the pink on the yellow in frame nine. He went wrong, losing ideal position on the brown and missing it, and Williams cleared to force the decider.
Logic suggested experience would tell again but, in two scoring visits, Woollaston took out victory, a huge step forward for him and his career.
Woollaston is a friendly, unassuming presence on the circuit from the snooker hotbed of Leicester, from where his friend Mark Selby has been cheering him on.
So much of top level sport is about belief and in particular believing you belong among the big boys. The increased number of events means that players lower down the rankings have more chances to play the top stars and their status is thus demystified. Even qualifying for something as apparently humble as the winners’ group of the Championship League gave Woollaston a boost before coming to Wales.
He may well relax now that he’s reached the final. That’s happened before, especially when an unheralded player comes up against a big favourite – remember Joe Johnson against Steve Davis in the 1986 World Championship final. If Woollaston can just go out and enjoy it he has a great chance.
After all, there’s pressure on Higgins as well. His last ranking title was the Shanghai Masters in September 2012 and at 39 he knows he doesn’t have years and years left to land silverware.
The four times world champion came to Cardiff with a point to prove. People are very quick to write off players as they age and slip a little in the rankings. But the way Higgins played against Brecel illustrated his class on the big occasion.
He deserves to start favourite and, if can dominate early on, will strongly fancy his chances of Welsh Open title no.4.
But on the night the Oscars are handed out in Hollywood, a long time member of snooker’s supporting cast at last takes his moment in the spotlight in Cardiff. Woollaston has achieved an ambition by reaching the final, now he has the chance to realise a dream by joing the ranks of big tournament winners.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.