Exhausted but exhilarated, John Higgins (above) was a picture of quiet contentment and satisfaction after a record-equalling Betfred Masters win over Ronnie O’Sullivan.
So often in sport the reality does not live up to the hype – but the spectacular exhibition laid on by the two old sparring partners on Friday night delivered on every level.
In their 70th career meeting in a saga going back to 1994, the pair of 45-year-olds that both turned pro two years before kept a lockdown TV audience enthralled.
Trading tons for fun, Higgins and O’Sullivan made five consecutive century breaks between them in one purple patch – including a 145 for the Wizard of Wishaw, a new event high-break.
And the 6-3 win leaves a rejuvenated Higgins with a chance of winning a first title of any sort for three years – and a third Masters crown fully 15 years after the last one.
Higgins pre-match urgings to “get the beers and a Chinese takeaway in, and enjoy it” proved to be sage advice for all those viewers that heeded his words.
The Rocket, who himself made breaks of 97, 125 and 103, was phlegmatic and philosophical in defeat – perhaps more so given his huge respect for a player he first lost to as a junior.
Since that time in a classic sporting rivalry up there with Federer/Nadal and Coe/Ovett they have dished out some real drubbings to each other, and been involved in titanic and tight battles.
But being the natural-born winner and champion he is, such a morale-boosting victory will not be enough for Higgins – who has designs on the title, the £250,000 first prize, and the Paul Hunter trophy.
Standing in the four-time world champion’s way for a place in Sunday’s final is David Gilbert.
The Tamworth pro (above) is one of the most fluent players on tour on his game, and is into a second straight Masters semi-final after making his debut in the event only last year.
Not so Higgins. This is his 27th consecutive appearance, and by comparison with other tournaments it has not been his happiest hunting ground despite the two titles, with 13 first-round exits.
Higgins said: “Great as it was, the Ronnie match is over now and Dave Gilbert will be such a tough game. He revels in the big stage and big-match atmosphere.
“It is only his second Masters and he is into the semis for the second time already, so I need to channel all my efforts into that match now. He did great to beat Kyren Wilson in the last round.”
Higgins’ Betfred World Championship semi-final against Gilbert almost two years ago was another classic encounter.
A 17-16 defeat in Sheffield in 2019 left a shattered Gilbert in tears after putting so much into an ultimately losing cause.
In the immediate and emotional aftermath of that epic contest Gilbert said: “I’m absolutely gutted to lose. I could have got to a world final, and that would have been incredible.
“The way I felt at the table in the last frame with a chance to win was the best feeling I have had in my life. But it wasn’t meant to be.
“I have never won anything, I have come close but this is probably the best couple of weeks I have had in my career by a mile, and it was an honour to be out there on the one table against John.
“I want to win a title and hold up a trophy, and that is a box to tick.”
Opportunity knocks once again for Gilbert to finally win a major tournament after four ranking final losses, and Saturday night’s clash will once more will be well worth tuning in for.
Tonight’s big match odds;