Snooker: Williams calls all the shots

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MARK WILLIAMS became the first Welsh finalist in the Embassy World Championship since Terry Griffiths in 1988 by completing a 17-10 win over the defending champion John Higgins, at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

"He played superb, the best anyone's ever played against me. There wasn't a lot I could do," said Higgins, whose week in week out consistency had assured him of remaining No 1 in the end-of-season rankings even before a ball was struck in snooker's 17-day marathon of the mind.

"I've done it to other people and when someone's at that level it can be intimidating," he added.

To become the first Welshman since Griffiths 20 years ago to hold the 72-year-old trophy aloft in triumph, Williams must beat either Stephen Hendry or Ronnie O'Sullivan, who were level at 12-12 going into their final session last night.

No one will observe the two-day final with more interest than Kevin Bohn, a factory worker from Cwm, Williams's home village, who staked a week's wages, pounds 140, at 300-1 with Corals that Williams, then 14, would win the world title by 2000.

Williams, 24, has won six world-ranking titles, but his highest-profile coverage came from beating Hendry 10-9 on a tie-break black to win last year's Benson & Hedges.

Since then, he has added to his deadly long potting more precision and touch close in. Of the 82 centuries he has compiled in his seven-year professional career, 28 have been produced this season.

The key phase of his semi-final victory came in Friday evening's penultimate session when he shot away from 8-8 to 12-8, making breaks of 75, 60, 40 (a more valuable effort than the figure would suggest as pink and black were out of commission) and 90 as he restricted Higgins to a mere 28 points in this sequence.

Resuming 14-10 ahead, Williams went for the quick kill, which would give him maximum time to settle himself for the most important match of his life. He took the opening frame with a break of 84 and, with Higgins resigned to his fate, added two unremarkable frames to assure himself of pounds 135,000 with the prospect of increasing it pounds 230,000.

Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O'Sullivan had adjourned for lunch at 12-12, their penultimate session having provided snooker fit for the gods. Hendry had opened with 104 to lead 10-7, but a brace of 30s quickly gave O'Sullivan one frame and a typically dashing 81 another.

The six-times world champion is all too well aware that, at the age of 30, it is becoming more difficult to add that elusive seventh with the high standard of the top players. He made his only unforced error on 38 in the next frame, a routine black from its spot, and with 84 O'Sullivan was level at 10-10.

For the first time in the tournament's history, four centuries in four frames followed: 101 and 108 from Hendry, his 75th in 13 pilgrimages to the Crucible, 134 and 110 from O'Sullivan, to leave them level.

When O'Sullivan failed on 105 at his 14th black during his 13-9 quarter- final win over John Parrott, he confessed to an odd thought: "It crossed my mind I'd rather win the tournament than make the 147." But there was no such illogical pre-bargaining in his head as he ran to 134 before just over-cutting the tricky final pink, which had been displaced halfway from its spot towards the side cushion.

There was no sign of disappointment at failing to enhance his bank balance by pounds 147,000 or not becoming the first to make two maximums at the Crucible. Only he, Cliff Thorburn, Hendry and Jimmy White have even made one. A long red from his first shot in the last frame of the morning put him in prime position at once and a virtuoso 110 provided the equaliser he needed.