World Championship: Williams proves to be Crucible’s leading man

Mark Williams leads John Higgins 10-7.
Mark Williams leads John Higgins 10-7.
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The Coen brothers’ thriller No Country for Old Men may have a sequel after John Higgins and Mark Williams rolled back the years in Sheffield on Sunday.

It could harshly be tagged A Crucible for Old Men as Williams, 43, and 42-year-old Higgins slugged it out in a thrilling final of the Betfred World Championship.

It is the first time the Crucible has seen a climax between two players aged over 40, and the winner will become the oldest world champion since Ray Reardon in 1978. But just like the Coen brothers’ 2008 cat-and-mouse chase – starring the likes of Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones – the Crucible’s leading men delivered on the big stage.

After last night’s second session Williams will resume on Monday afternoon leading 10-7.

The two-time Crucible champion raced into a 4-0 lead, and moved 5-1 in front with a 95 break – after Higgins potted the first century of the match with 110 – but the Scot won the final two frames of the opening session, with scores of 52 and 59 to trail 5-3 in their best-of-35-frame contest.

A clearance of 72 nudged Williams 6-3 ahead, but Higgins refused to lie down, winning four of the next five frames to pull level at 7-7, including breaks of 127, 57 and 117.

The Welshman then picked the perfect time to knock in his first century of the match – a well-crafted 118 – and moved 9-7 in front, with a 64 break after Higgins missed a simple black.

The final frame of the evening went the way of Williams – after Higgins fouled by knocking in the brown ball – to restore his three-frame cushion.

Boasting six world titles and 50 ranking titles between them, Williams and Higgins are snooker royalty having turned professional, along with fellow graduate Ronnie O’Sullivan, in the famous Class of ’92.

But Williams, after losing in the qualifiers and failing to reach the Crucible last year, had seriously considered quitting the sport 12 months ago.

The rejuvenated Welshman had not gone beyond the quarter-finals stage since he won the second of his world titles in 2003, but has seen a return to his best form after tinkering with his technique and training.

He needed all of his experience to crawl over the finish line in his epic 17-15 semi-final battle with Barry Hawkins on Saturday night.

“I’m knackered,” admitted Williams. “I haven’t felt that nervous since I beat Stephen Hendry on a re-spotted black in the (1998) Masters final.

“I was gone in the end, I couldn’t pot three balls on the trot. Luckily for me Barry was feeling the pressure.

“We both collapsed. It must have been great to watch, it was like two pub players trying to get over the line.

“I’m over the moon to be in the final. I got there in the end, I don’t know how.

“Somehow I managed to pot a really good pink. I thought I had missed the last black, but when it dropped in I was so relieved.

“My arms and legs didn’t feel like mine. I had no feeling in my arms at all. The last thing I wanted was to play another frame.

“The drama and the atmosphere out there was unbelievable. I forgot how good that arena is with one table, it’s been so long.

“I’ve just got to go out there and enjoy the final. Hopefully if it does go close towards the end I won’t collapse like a cheap tent again. I’ve grown up with John, played him in all the tournaments, and now we’re in the final of the World Championship. It’s unbelievable, I can’t wait.”

Scot Higgins is seeking a fifth Crucible crown, 20 years after his first world title.

His 17-13 semi-final win over Kyren Wilson may have lacked the stamina-sapping drama of Williams’s match, but Higgins is on a mission to erase the memory of last year’s final defeat to world No 1 Mark Selby.

Twelve months ago he led Selby 10-4 in the final only to lose 18-15.

Higgins said: “I’m so proud that 20 years after I won my first world title I’m sitting here ready to compete in another final. It’s a fantastic feeling.

“At the time I felt last year was my best opportunity to win it again. I don’t know how the next game is going to transpire, I might be well behind and not have an opportunity.

“We’ll need to see how the first day of this final goes.”