Player of the season John Higgins overcame an attack of nerves to beat nemesis Ken Doherty 6-2 in the semi-finals of the China Open in Beijing.
Doherty had won their four most recent encounters, including a 9-8 victory from a seemingly hopeless position at 8-5 adrift when they clashed in the Malta Cup final last month.
“It’s good to stop the rot against Ken, even though he didn’t really fire out there today,” said Higgins, who remained on course to capture his third title of the campaign having already triumphed at the Grand Prix and Masters.
“It was a typical semi-final. You want to get through so badly you get more nervous than usual. We both made our mistakes but luckily I managed to scramble over the line.”
The result was vital in the race to be world number one as Doherty had been closing the gap on Higgins, who is second in the provisional rankings and hoping to significantly erode the advantage of Stephen Hendry heading to the 888.com World Championship next month.
“I was looking at how the rankings are shaping up so I knew what a big match that was,” said Higgins, attempting to join Ray Reardon, Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan as only the fourth player to regain world number one status.
“What I’ve done this season is a real achievement but after what happened in Malta I won’t be satisfied unless I leave here with the trophy.”
Higgins opened the scoring in the first frame with 38, launched by an outlandish fluke only to jaw a short-range red and Doherty, unbeaten against the Scot since losing 5-2 when they met in the semi-finals of the 2001 Champions Cup, cleared with 78.
Leading by 57 in the second, though, Doherty unforgivably missed a black off its spot. Higgins capitalised with a 65 clearance and added a disjointed third before dramatically snatching the fourth for 3-1.
On a 69 break Doherty appeared certain to level but again jawed a black off its spot that would have banished any lingering doubt.
Higgins laid the successful snooker he required on the last red, cleared to blue and on his next visit doubled the pink length of the table to a baulk pocket before adding the black nestled invitingly in the jaws of a top corner pocket.
The interval fell at the right time for Doherty, who compiled breaks of 45 and 87 in the fifth frame but wasted two chances early in the sixth. Higgins moved 4-2 up with a late 51 before securing the seventh with 67 having trapped Doherty in a tricky snooker.
Doherty’s spirit had been broken and when he sportingly called himself for a foul bridging awkwardly trying to pot a red, Higgins stepped in with a run of 55 to secure his fourth appearance in a final this season and his 29th in ranking events overall.
Higgins now plays defending champion and Chinese sporting hero Ding Junhui or Mark Williams in tomorrow’s best-of-17-frames final for a first prize of £30,000 (€44,000).
Meanwhile Doherty returns home rueing a squandered opportunity.
“A couple of mistakes early on cost me dear. I should have been in front at the interval, not playing catch up,” said the downhearted Dubliner, whitewashed 6-0 by Ding in the semi-finals of the China Open last year.
“I’m disappointed because the chance to win another tournament was right there.”