DING JUNHUI produced a thrilling fightback to keep alive his hopes of being crowned world snooker champion in his adopted hometown of Sheffield.
The 30-year-old Chinese potter showed dogged determination in Friday night’s third session of his semi-final at the Betfred World Championship to claw back a deficit to level at 12-12 against defending champion Mark Selby in their best-of-33 frames showdown.
Ding – who has lived in Sheffield for over a decade – had taken a 5-3 advantage into Friday’s play, but he was subdued by world No 1 Selby in a tactical battle as the Leicester potter turned the tables to lead 9-7.
But when the pair returned on Friday night, it was Ding who came out on top, levelling at 12-12 after taking the final two frames of the evening to restore parity.
It means they resume Saturday afternoon, a nine-frame mini session to decide who will compete in Sunday’s final against either John Higgins or Barry Hawkins.
Defending champion Selby is eyeing a repeat of last year’s final outcome against Ding, and by retrieving a 5-3 overnight deficit to lead 9-7 he showed the form and application that could see him reach another Crucible title match.
Without being at his very best, Selby engineered a platform from which he can push for victory in the best-of-33-frame tussle.
He jolted Ding by taking the four frames before the interval, setting a high benchmark in the morning’s opener by making an ominous 100 break.
It then took graft from Selby to nose in front and fend off a rejuvenated Ding following the interval. It was Ding who provided the session’s highlight, a mesmerising 139 total clearance in the seventh frame. It followed a skilfully plotted 84 two frames earlier which showed his focus remained sharp.
China’s hopes yet again rest on Ding, and the morning start in Sheffield meant the match was prime-time viewing in his homeland. But few in the Far East would have enjoyed the sight of Selby taking six of the eight frames before lunch.
He’s definitely got the belief now. I was saying before this event he was my pick to win it.John Higgins on semi-final opponent Barry Hawkins
The 33-year-old from Leicester accepts he cannot turn on the style all the time, even though his quarter-final annihilation of Marco Fu’s title hopes showed Selby has plenty in reserve in case he becomes involved in a shoot-out of big breaks.
“You know in this tournament you’re not going to be able to play well in every single session, it’s more or less impossible,” Selby said. “So you need to be able to scrap it out and I’ve shown in the past I can do that.”
Higgins believes he will be facing one of the greats if he and Selby reach the final.
There is no mistaking Higgins’s place among snooker’s elite, and he would go second only to fellow Scot Stephen Hendry on the all-time list of ranking event winners should he lift the trophy.
Higgins is tied on 28 with Ronnie O’Sullivan and Steve Davis, eight adrift of Hendry, while Selby has catching up to do after landing 11 so far.
But 41-year-old Higgins feels defending Crucible champion Selby belongs in the highest class, saying: “He’s one of the best who’s ever played the game.
“He’s got a great all-round game, and it’s just testament to him that he’s winning a lot of events and he wants to keep on winning.
“You’ve got to give him every credit, he’s a terrific competitor.”
In a Friday afternoon semi-final session of patchy quality against Hawkins, Higgins went from 5-3 ahead at the outset to a 10-6 lead. He will aim to convert that into a fuss-free victory today. Hawkins made the only century of the match so far – 115 – but his display was often ragged and Higgins took advantage.
The best-of-33-frame tussle could still contain plot twists, and Higgins came to Sheffield with a hunch Hawkins might be a dark horse who would carry off the title.
This is a fourth Crucible semi-final in five years for the 38-year-old Kent cueman, while for Higgins it is a first since 2011, when he landed the fourth and most recent of his world titles.
“I know how difficult Barry is to beat,” Higgins said. “In the last two or three years he’s grown into being a great champion. He always had the game but I don’t think he had the belief.
“He’s definitely got the belief now. I was saying before this event he was my pick to win it.”