Williams graduates with flying colours

The irresistible rise of Wales' new world champion recalls days gone by when snooker's greats were virtually invincible
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The Independent Online

Ask the new world champion, Mark Williams, about his schooling and he will reply: "I got five A levels - absent, absent, absent, absent, absent. I was never there, really." His education was spent learning tables, and not the sort that begin "one two is two".

He is not alone. Jimmy White had a better nodding acquaintance with the truant officers in Tooting than he did his teachers and many others put cueing ahead of maths in the list of priorities. In the 1950s, boxing or rugby league were the main routes out of the greyness of working-class life; now it is snooker and none have done better than Williams.

Winning the first all-Welsh Embassy World Championship final confirms the 25-year-old Welshman as the best player around. His record this season has been so good it harks back to the days when top players, faced by relatively few challengers, dominated. Williams reached seven of the nine ranking finals and won three of them, putting him so far ahead of his peers he would have been No 1 next season even had he squandered points by going out in the first round at the Crucible.

Instead he reinforced his position both in the rankings and in the estimation of his peers. Everyone knew he was a talented player, but the events of the last 17 days have confirmed him as a competitor of the fiercest variety.

Against John Higgins in the semi-finals he won six frames in succession to convert a 15-11 deficit into a 17-15 victory and in the final he faced a successive fall at the ultimate hurdle when he trailed 13-7 to his compatriot, Matthew Stevens. Last year he simply faded away against Stephen Hendry; this time he won 11 out of 14 frames to succeed 18-16.

It was the most exciting comeback since Hendry won 10 frames in a row from 14-8 to beat White in 1992 and arguably better, because the Whirlwind had been reduced to a gentle zephyr long before the end. Stevens looked a dangerous opponent throughout the final, recording five centuries in that match alone.

Stevens, who would have become the youngest winner since Hendry 10 years ago and who rises to sixth in the world rankings, pinpointed the turning point as the 23rd frame when he missed the black off its spot and a chance to go 14-9 ahead.

"From there Mark played well," he said. "At the moment he is the best by a long way. He is a long way clear of anyone in the rankings. I will learn from the experience. You can't play under any more pressure - and I'll try to come back and go one better next year."

The two players began and finished as the closest of friends but apart in terms of standing. Williams, by his own admission, has won many matches this season by reputation and obduracy. Stevens is acquiring both qualities, but not to the same extent.

Williams admitted: "I've been consistent. I've got to a lot of finals but, if I'm honest with myself, then I've not played that well in a lot of tournaments. It has been pretty patchy stuff - one good match then one bad match - but I have stuck in there when the going has got tough.

"There have been so many matches where I've won 5-3 or 5-4 which could have gone either way and that's why I have got a lot of ranking points. It's down to fighting spirit, trying to win when not playing well. That's the hardest thing to do so I'm quite proud of myself for what achieving what I have."

Achievement can be a twin-edged sword and players with successful seasons have arrived at the Crucible too drained to be at their best. Williams suffered an energy loss on the first day of the final but rediscovered it when he needed to.

"I thought that I might be giving myself too much to do against Matthew, but when I won the last four frames of the afternoon session to cut the deficit to 13-11 I knew I had every chance," he said. "I knew the pressure was going to mount up - and it was getting to us both a bit. There was massive pressure in the arena and it is hard to cope with it.

"Luckily I edged in front and my manager, Ian Doyle, told me to stick in there. He said I'd not had much of the run of the balls and that it would eventually change - and it worked in my favour a bit near the end."

The World Championships have also worked in the favour his country, which has its first world champion since Terry Griffiths 21 years ago, and the most promising young player in Stevens. After years of neglect when Scotland, via Hendry and Higgins, eclipsed the principality, suddenly snooker has as strong a Welsh accent as when Ray Reardon, Griffiths and Doug Mountjoy were in their pomp in the 70s.

Williams' success may owe nothing to its education system, but it will be cherished in Wales none the less.

EMBASSY WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP (Crucible Theatre, Sheffield): Final: M Williams (Wal) bt M Stevens (Wal) 18-16. Frame scores (Stevens first): 62-50, 84-28, 33-56, 103 (103 break)-23, 18-65, 61-76, 0-123 (123), 75-35, 64-24, 84-37, 59-21, 117 (111)-0, 114 (114)-7, 6-79, 73-22, 0-68, 133 (108 break)-0, 66-48, 0-106 (106), 55-54, 0-81, 34-79, 46-71, 37-79, 33-77, 67-0, 6-75, 0-74, 120 (120 break)-16, 13-61, 66-70, 60-29, 8-76, 21-73.

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