Playful Mark Williams races into early lead in World Snooker final but John Higgins fights back to stay in touch

Higgins closed out the final frame to go into Sunday evening’s play 5-3 behind in this first-to-18 final, when it might have been so much worse

Lawrence Ostlere
The Crucible
Sunday 06 May 2018 16:02
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Mark Williams, right, leads the way against old friend John Higgins
Mark Williams, right, leads the way against old friend John Higgins

There was a moment in the opening session of this World Snooker Championship final when Mark Williams potted a long pink with his eyes closed, just for the hell of it. This was the Welshman’s mood for much of the afternoon; relaxed, playful and a bit silly, with the demeanour of a man playing in his local pub. At one point he asked the nearest spectator for a handful of Wine Gums, then munched on the bemused man’s Minstrels between shots.

For a while John Higgins was unable to contain the ebullient Williams, falling 4-0 behind and seemingly stuck in a cycle of mistrust between himself and his cue. But the Scot hit back after the midsession interval with the only century break of the match so far, before crucially closing out the final frame to go into Sunday evening’s play 5-3 behind in this first-to-18 final, when it might have been so much worse.

It was some performance from a man still carrying bags under his eyes from the night before. Williams was seen in a kebab shop at 2.30am celebrating his gruelling semi-final win over Barry Hawkins with a large doner and chips, before he returned to the Crucible at midday to take on his old friend Higgins in a throwback: two of snooker’s class of ’92 with a total age of 85, the oldest in history.

In the practice room beforehand the pair shared jokes and reminisced; as they stood in the wings waiting for the cameras to roll, they leaned against their own names on the wall of champions and grinned like a couple of old friends bringing out the giddy youth in each other.

Mark Williams tucks into a fans’ sweets

“Let’s get the old boys on the baize!” roared MC Rob Walker as they appeared through the curtain, and that’s when their demeanours diverged. Higgins became stern, agitated, running his hand up and down his cue in a nervous twitch. Williams, meanwhile, was totally at ease, working the room like snooker’s entertainers of old.

The Welshman’s performance was far from vintage – his highest break of the opening four frames was 42 – but he showed the traits which make him so difficult to beat. He clunked a long red against the back of the pocket for the first point of the match, and did the same to clinch the first frame; in the second he showed his inventive streak with an outrageous three-ball plant which he spotted and potted to kill a safety exchange.

In the third and fourth frames Higgins had excellent scoring chances but the Wizard of Wishaw showed little command over the cue ball. He missed a pink in frame three as he bridged awkwardly over a red with his fingers grimaced against the baize, and just when he seemed certain to clinch frame four, leading 58-52, he ran out of position from yellow to green using the rest, leaving Williams to clear up and lead 4-0.

John Higgins lost the first four frames

But Higgins returned positively, clipping balls into pockets with authority thereafter. A difficult red to middle proved the beginning of a brilliantly ragged century break to finally get on the board at 4-1, before the pair shared frames six and seven: Williams scuttled in a 92 before Higgins replied with 52.

That made it 5-2 to Williams, before the vital final frame of the session. Williams put 21 on the board before a safety scramble, in which they took turns to knock reds up to the baulk cushion. But when Williams missed a difficult red to the middle pocket as he ran out of patience, which hit the near jaw and bounced away, Higgins stepped in to compose a break of 59 – sealed with a skilful double into the left middle pocket. Despite Williams’ fast start, the momentum ended with Higgins and he will be relieved to have got away with only a two-frame deficit.

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