MARK WILLIAMS isn’t a great fan of interviews. Indeed, the Welshman seems wary of the media in general.
This situation was exacerbated by the firestorm in which he was engulfed two years ago when a throwaway remark on Twitter, admittedly desecrating the good name of the Crucible, led to endless media coverage and Williams being booed at the home of snooker and then fined £4,000 by World Snooker.
Since then, Williams has remained active on the social networking site but doesn’t exactly dance round in joy when a journalist comes calling.
However, the twice world champion sat down for a chat with Inside Snooker ahead of his home tournament, the BetVictor Welsh Open. Always a special event for the Welsh players, it carries extra significance for Williams as he attempts to regain a top 16 seeding in time for the World Championship to avoid having to qualify.
And heading to Newport, he admits his form is a far cry from the years when he was one of snooker’s dominant forces.
“I’m still 18th in the world but my form has been 30 to 40 points off what I used to be five years ago. I’m probably 60 points off what I was ten years ago,” Williams said.
“I’m trying to get back in the top 16 but my form isn’t there. People say when you get into your late 30s your form goes downhill. I’ve been watching John [Higgins] the last couple of years and he’s not the player he was. But then on the other hand you see Ronnie O’Sullivan and he’s playing like he was ten years ago.
“People say the standard has gone up but I don’t buy that. The standard lower down the rankings has gone up but at the top compared to how Stephen Hendry, Ronnie, John and I suppose me as well used to play, we’re not anywhere near that.
“We’ve dropped back to the rest of the field and that’s why it’s hard to pick a tournament now because they’re all the same standard.”
Here’s one thing people need to know about Mark Williams: he hasn’t changed. He was a cheeky teenager when he turned professional in 1992 and is now a cheeky 38 year-old.
But the mickey-taking, the wind-ups and the general larking about which fills the boredom backstage at tournaments hides a genuine humility. In the best Kipling way, Williams has never allowed success to go to his head and rarely dwelt on the inevitable disappointments. He is unaffected by fame because he is unimpressed by it. He doesn’t seek acceptance. He is who he is.
And who he is, let’s not forget, is a man who became world champion twice at a time when Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan were all producing snooker of the very highest quality.
What Williams had, despite his laidback style, was an inner toughness born out of his upbringing and the ability to keep going under pressure, the asset which separates talented players from champions.
In 2002/03 he won the UK Championship, Masters and World Championship, a feat only matched by Hendry and Steve Davis. His form began to dip as the decade went on and he lost his top 16 place but immediately regained it and returned to the world no.1 spot in 2011 after winning the German Masters, his 18th ranking title.
He featured in two more finals that year but lost them both, in deciding frames to Stuart Bingham in Australia and Mark Selby in Shanghai. Since then, results and more importantly performances have been disappointing yet Williams goes to Newport this week as his country’s highest ranked player.
He is the only Welshman to win the tournament but knows he and his compatriots will be under pressure and scrutiny from home fans left disappointed by the current fortunes of Welsh snooker, traditionally such a reliable force.
“I probably do try harder in the Welsh,” Williams said. “It’s nice to be able to travel back and forth from home but also everyone wants to come and watch, and it’s hard to get enough tickets for everybody, so that can be a pain.
“Hopefully I can have a good run. It’s about time some Welshman did because we haven’t done anything there for the last four or five years, which isn’t great for the tournament.
“There were no Welshmen at the Masters, which is disappointing. It’s shocking. There aren’t that many Welshmen racing up the rankings. You’ve got Michael White and Jamie Jones but they’ve sort of stopped moving.
“I haven’t seen that many good juniors. There’s a 12 year-old in my club who is good, he knocks in 90 breaks but as for 14, 15 and 16 year-olds trying to break through into the pro circuit, I haven’t seen anyone.”
As most snooker conversations inevitably do, talk turns to Ronnie O’Sullivan. Williams admires how O’Sullivan has maintained his form but is unhappy at the world champion’s freedom to be more choosy than his rivals.
“I don’t agree that the world champion should be seeded second. It should be scrapped,” he said.
“When Barry Hearn took over he said people supporting the tour would get rewarded. All of us have supported the tour, played in every tournament and travelled all over the world. Ronnie plays in one tournament and knocks Graeme Dott out of his spot in the Masters. Graeme’s travelled all over the world supporting the tour but has been shafted.”
This shouldn’t be read as the precursor to some anti-Hearn rant. Far from it: Williams believes the Matchroom boss has rescued snooker from a slow death.
He said: “I think it’s great what Barry has done, when you look at all the tournaments. The thought of him not getting involved or not winning the vote, it would have been catastrophic. We probably wouldn’t even have a game by now.
“I don’t agree with some stuff but overall it’s brilliant. It’s just that I don’t enjoy being away for weeks on end any more. I think it’s because I’m older now and have a family. After four or five days at a tournament I can’t wait to go back home. Years ago I could go away for a month at a time and it wouldn’t bother me.”
Of Williams’s 18 ranking titles, eight have been won outside of the UK but over the next fortnight he will hope to keep the home fires burning in his native Wales. Longer term, he must guard against the flame flickering out for good.
“I’m 18th playing absolute rubbish,” he said. “My standard is poor but I’m still fighting away. If I can get a bit of form then I could possibly get back in the top 16.”
Photographs by Monique Limbos.