Williams supreme in defeat

Guy Hodgson sees billiards champions ancient and modern meet in the final of the British Open
Click to follow
A shock of ages was not confined to the final of the Strachan British Open Billiards Championship in Wigan yesterday. Outside the town's pier a group of school children in 19th century costume queued anachronistically among the anoraks of their peers.

Rex Williams did not stick out like they did. Well, not quite. At 61 he belongs to billiards eras that hark back to Joe Davis. To witness him playing in the final of a prestige event was like finding an old master among brilliant, but different, modernist art. Yesterday his opponent was the current world champion, Peter Gilchrist, a juxtaposition of billiards old and new. Hims, ancient and modern.

Mentioning the name Rex Williams in billiards company is to invite reverential tones. Nationally renowned as a snooker television commentator and player - he reached five world championship semi-finals - nevertheless it is in the three-ball game that his younger playing partners most readily apply the word "great".

Geet Sethi, the Indian world champion in 1992 and 1993, for example. "Walter Lindrum is the name in billiards," he said, "but most of us would acknowledge Rex to be the greatest surviving player. His return to the sport is the best thing to happen to the sport in this country for years.

"He plays classical snooker, so smooth and soft. You never see Rex hitting the balls hard, he caressess them. His touch, his cue action, is immaculate.''

Sethi and Mike Russell, the world Nos 1 and 2, had sampled the Williams touch the previous day when, in the former's words, both "were massacred". He added: "I've never seen Rex at his best, he retired before I got anywhere near top level, but his performance against Mike in particular was nearly faultless. He was played off the table."

The fault line lying through billiards, and indeed the reason why the sport is so happy to see Williams out of retirement is that the public in this country do not readily take to it as a spectator event. While snooker boomed in the Sixties and Seventies, its relative went into quiet decline. An Indian television audience of around 250 million watched live broadcasts when Sethi won his world professional titles, while the attendance yesterday in the Bellingham Hotel did not reach 50.

The basic problem is that the game to the non-player, is, well, boring. If snooker is "chess with balls" (Barry Hearn, circa 1980) then billiards is rook takes knight over and over again and even Gary Kasparov might tire of the same move ad infinitum.

"The players are almost too skilful," Alan Chamberlain, the tournament director, said. "What they do takes incredible expertise but because they do it so well they make it look simple. I think you need to play the game to appreciate it as a spectator."

Williams' return undoubtedly gives the sport a new ingredient. World champion for 14 years, he quit the game in 1983 to concentrate on snooker and only returned to it last season. Yesterday was his first final since, a milestone to cherish.

"I believe," Chamberlain added, "that if Rex had continued playing billiards none of the current players would be able to touch him even at his age. He has taken a while to recapture his old form but I think we're just beginning to get glimpses now."

It seemed that way at the start of yesterday's four-hour final when Williams, whose immaculate cut would make Jeeves look scruffy, elegantly sculptured a 307-103 lead. It was like watching a Rolls-Royce accelerating effortlessly from traffic lights.

The problem was that Gilchrist had a pretty nifty piece of engineering under the bonnet, too, and what appeared to be an episode of All Our Yesterdays suddenly turned into The Young Ones. The 27-year-old world champion grasped the moment and Williams became the most impeccably groomed wallflower in Wigan. To the tune of 1,397-592.

After one particularly brilliant break, Williams shouted across: "You wouldn't pick out my lottery numbers for me this week will you?" He was not suggesting his opponent was lucky, rather in that mood he could win anything.

"It happens in billiards," Williams said. "Sometimes you can't get on to the table. Peter played like what he is, the world champion. At the end, when the match was all but over, I made a few mistakes but when it was competitive I don't think I missed a shot. He was just too good for me on the day.

"Getting to the final here makes me feel I can still play a bit. I'm the only player to win the world championship in three decades, the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties and I like to hope I might complete the sequence in the Nineties.''

A man out of his time, maybe, but billiards would not be greatly astounded if he managed it.

Strachan British Open Championship (Wigan) Final: P Gilchrist (Eng) bt R Williams (Eng) 1,397-592.