Snooker: Rock 'n' roll Williams finds rhythm at the right time

World No 1 and former world champion rediscovers winning touch and rebuilds confidence in run-up to World Championships
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The Independent Online

Mark Williams is pacing the players' lounge like a caged animal, albeit more sloth than tiger. "Tell him to sell it, just sell it. I want £20,000 for it," he shouts to a member of his management team, who is on the phone to another acquaintance, who has apparently been charged with offloading an unwanted Range Rover.

We are in Aberdeen, at the Regal Scottish Masters – the last warm-up tournament before the World Championships, which start at the Crucible this weekend – and the Welsh world No 1 is trying to kill time between matches.

"All this hanging around is doing my head in," the 27-year-former world champion says. He sits down, dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a baggy T-shirt and rests one elbow on the Formica table. "There's nothing to do," he says, his accent accentuating his misery as he runs his hand across an unshaven jaw. "I can't go home between matches because it's too far. [He still lives in his hometown of Cym, near Ebbw Vale]. The weather's not so bad but I haven't got my golf clubs. I'm bored. I just want to play. Are you leaving here later? Can you take me?"

And that, in a nutshell, is the day-to-day life of the modern-day snooker superstar on tour. There is nothing particularly offensive about Aberdeen or the venue, although a conference centre resembling an aircraft hangar on the outskirts of town is not most people's idea of a fun place to spend a week.

You can sit in your chain hotel, adjacent to the conference centre. You can dine in the officials' canteen, but how excited can you get by a chicken biryani or Chinese-style chicken when everyone in the room is the same everyone who was in a similar canteen last week, last month and last year?

You can spend time practicing, a necessary evil, but hardly fun. Or you can sit in the "lounge" – four three-seat sofas and a drinks machine – watching your contemporaries on television as they play in a curtained-off corner of a conference centre 100 metres away.

Not that Williams is complaining. After 17 months without a ranking tournament title, his fortunes did a U-turn last month when he won the China Open in Shanghai. "I'll kill someone if I lose another final," he had said before his 9-8 win over Anthony Hamilton. Five major finals in his barren spell had ended in defeat. Suddenly he is the form player.

"It was nearly two season since I'd won," he says. "That builds up in the back of your mind. I was playing well and reaching finals but it seemed a habit – reaching a final and then getting slaughtered. I lost one 9-1, another 10-3. I was really in need of a win. In the end I nicked it off him [Hamilton]. He should have won it."

The win in China was followed by another, in Bangkok, where he beat Stephen Lee 9-4. "I just wanted to get my game right before the World Championships – that was the one I was gearing myself up for. Having won those two tournaments, I'll be going to Sheffield with a lot more confidence." In the circumstances, elimination from the Aberdeen event at the hands of Jimmy White last Thursday was not exactly unwelcome.

Williams does not come across as a man who lacks confidence. A promising boxer in his teens, he gave up the ring after 12 successful fights "because in snooker you don't get hit." His first title, the Regal Welsh Open, followed in 1996. And from there, despite some scepticism from the pundits, he never looked back.

Williams' off-duty interests have always been more rock 'n' roll than pipe 'n' slippers – his favourite distractions include his Ferrari, the Stereophonics, Rottweiler dogs and movies of the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels genre, and he is not averse to a good night out. But his composure at the table made him stand out. His ranking rocketed, and a succession of titles and major finals have cemented his place.

Williams rates the atmosphere at the B&H Masters at Wembley in 1998, when he came back from 9-6 down to beat Stephen Hendry 10-9 on a re-spotted black in the final frame, the most extraordinary he has experienced.

The next year saw a first appearance in the world final (he lost 18-11 to Hendry) then two years ago he beat Matthew Stevens 18-16 (after being 13-7 down) to become the first left-handed world champion. Last year he became the fifth successive defending champion to suffer an early elimination, in his case 13-12 to Northern Ireland's Joe Swail in the second round.

And what of this year, when he starts with a first-round match against John Parrott? "When you start out as a pro you think you'd be happy to win any tournament," he says. "But when you've done that then the World Championship is the only one you really want to win."

And the Crucible, with all the history of the tournament, must be very special? "The atmosphere's very different," he says. "The crowd are so close, breathing down your neck." So it's the Promised Land of the game, then? Not quite.

"It's a shithole. I've never liked it. And it's too small for two tables. You're cramped up, there's nowhere to stretch my long legs..."

Williams stops, then laughs. He has to, really.

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