What a final this was. The greatest ever, Steve Davis described it. It certainly had the most unusual aftermath. As Mark Williams sank a red to take the World Snooker Championship for the third time in his career, beating John Higgins 18-16, the journalists in the Crucible’s press room were preparing themselves for the most unlikely press conference they had ever attended.
So unexpected would be his victory, if he was to win, Williams had promised to conduct his media duties in the nude, retaining his dignity behind the renowned trophy.
“As long as Barry Hearn [chairman of World Snooker] doesn’t fine me, I’ll have to do it,” he said, when asked in victory if he was going to fulfil his pledge. He was as good as his word: there were to be some judiciously averted eyes.
It is perhaps not what might be expected from someone of his age. With this win, at 43, Williams had become the oldest champion since Ray Reardon lifted the trophy in 1978. Though as far as anyone can remember, Reardon didn’t use it to protect his modesty.
Incredibly, the last time Williams, the former world No 1 had been this close to the most significant silverware in his sport was 15 years ago. Indeed, after not winning a ranking title in six years, he had considered retirement last summer when he failed so much as to qualify for the Crucible event.
Convinced by his wife, however, he decided to stay on the circuit for one more year, and, with his elegant, languid style, smoothed his way into a position he had last occupied in 2003: trousering the winner’s cheque of £425,000.
“Absolutely gone,” he said when asked if he thought days like this were long over. “I wasn’t even here last year, I watched it in a caravan.” Nevertheless Williams had begun the final in coruscating form, as if determined to make up for lost time, taking a 10-7 overnight lead into the last day.
Mark Williams is doing press conference naked as promised pic.twitter.com/Qe64siLcP1
— David Hendon (@davehendon) May 7, 2018
Then he moved up a gear, winning the first four frames of the afternoon session. At that point, there were those with tickets for the evening’s finale who feared that they had bought duds. It looked as if it might be over before the six o’clock news: Williams was just four frames away from victory. He looked home and hosed.
The audience need not have worried. John Higgins had not reached his seventh final by being a walkover. From an apparently finished position, he demonstrated extraordinary tenacity. His shot selection perfect, his execution sharp, his cue work immaculate, he delivered an exhibition of ruthless, error-free snooker, undertaking a comeback of a kind that normally occurs only in the pages of a comic.
With care and precision, he eased himself back into the match. Cheered on by his children, the Scotsman made his statement of intent with a 131 break in the first frame of the evening session. Williams then, 58 points ahead, let him back in for the second, not only missing a red but leaving it for his opponent to pot. Higgins stormed through, clearing up.
Williams then took a 47 lead in the third. But he could feel Higgins’ breath on his collar. And the Scot incredibly came back again to win it with an 82 break.
Then in the last frame before the mid-evening interval, Williams, apparently deflated by the pressure, missed an easy red when finally allowed back on the table.
But somehow, after the break, he re-grouped, re-gathered. Somehow, perhaps recalling the position he had been in last summer, he seized the moment, taking three of the next four frames to grab hold of the Championship crown.
Though it was not without a scare, not without another Higgins demonstration of intractability. Apparently about to seize the title at 17-15 ahead, Williams – his fingernails dug into the trophy – let Higgins in again to prolong the agony.
But ultimately Williams was not to be outdone. Demonstrating admirable nerve to win it at the last, what an act of redemption it was. What a victory. What a champion. Though in truth he will doubtless agree he probably looks better in his waistcoat.