THE BETVICTOR WELSH OPEN, which starts on Monday, showcases the sport in one of its traditional heartlands but there has only ever been one home winner.
Mark Williams is still the Welsh no.1 more than a decade since his best days and still the player Wales looks to for some inspiration.
His has been a stellar career. Ray Reardon and Terry Griffiths are the other two Welsh greats from different eras but Williams was competing with, and beating, the very best champions modern snooker has produced to win his major titles. His name deserves to feature in any discussion about the greatest players of all time.
As a journalist, I covered all of Williams’s great triumphs and found him to be one of the most straightforward and friendliest of players, with a sense of humour designed to puncture egos and deflate the pressure of top level snooker tournaments.
It’s often remarked on how laid back he is. It’s true, and I think that it’s because he realised early on that even though this is a big money sport and indeed a profession, it is ultimately only a game. Like any game, some you win and some you lose.
A distinct lack of deference and unwillingness to play any sort of media game or cultivate a phoney image has marked out Williams as one of the most genuine people in the sport. He likes to relentlessly wind people up, whoever they are, and not let them take themselves too seriously.
This is as true for the great champions of the sport as anyone else. When he beat Stephen Hendry 9-2 to win the 1997 British Open he stated that he was disappointed as he’d wanted to beat him 9-1.
When Steve Davis fell out of the top 16 for the first time, Mark told him not to worry as he could get him tickets to the Masters.
If this sounds like wanton disrespect for two bona fide greats of snooker then you are missing the point, which is that Williams has always treated everyone the same, whoever they are. Hendry was never one to get close to players but became good friends with the Welshman, perhaps because he treated him like a human being rather than a living deity.
This aversion to deference was likely formed in childhood. He grew up as the son of a miner when that industry was in decline. Young Mark accompanied his father on strike pickets, seeing the inequities of life close-up.
Boxing was an early pursuit but it was snooker where he found an outlet, a sport in Wales long linked to working class life and, at that time, with a highly competitive junior scene.
As amateur snooker thrived, so did he. The sport had enjoyed mass exposure on terrestrial television and legions of kids were playing regularly. A bunch of them turned professional when the game went open in 1991. Williams would follow as a 17 year-old a year later.
There were long days in anonymous booths at the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool to get through to the final venues. Williams won nine matches to qualify for the UK Championship where he recovered from 8-3 down to take Hendry to a decider in the last 64. Hendry won it but it was the first sign that he could make a professional impact.
All the focus at this time was on Ronnie O’Sullivan and, to a lesser extent, on John Higgins, but Williams in time became seen as the third part of this holy trinity of new, brilliant snooker players who would gradually erode Hendry’s tenure as top dog.
O’Sullivan, in 1993, and Higgins, in 1994, won their first ranking titles. Williams did so in 1996 at his home event, the Welsh Open. His highest break that week was 76, leading to suggestions it would be a one off, suggestions that were catastrophically wide of the mark.
Williams has made over 300 centuries and a maximum at the Crucible but has also been a master at scrapping out frames. At his best, he was among the best at controlling frames and matches, closing the shop and just getting the job done.
Williams prevailed in one of the most exciting ever finishes to a major final when he edged Hendry 10-9 on a respotted black in the 1998 Masters, a sign of how adept he was at performing under pressure.
His road to the very top began at the 1998 Irish Open, halfway through that season. By the end of the next he had been in eight ranking finals, winning six, including the UK and World Championship crowns, and become world no.1.
More big titles followed. For a period Williams was the best player in the world: better than Hendry, O’Sullivan and Higgins. In 2003, he became only the third player, after Davis and Hendry, to win the UK, Masters and world titles in the same season. At the following season’s LG Cup he completed the fourth leg of the BBC grand slam. At this time he had won his opening match in a record 48 consecutive ranking tournaments.
Through it all he enjoyed the big money he was earning but never over celebrated, nor mulled over defeats. He never changed either, retaining that same cheeky but benign personality he had always had. The wider public can now see it for themselves on Twitter. Even if his tweets aren’t to your taste they are refreshing in a world of sport where golfers and tennis players routinely tell us how happy they are with their sponsors.
From the very top, the only way is down, and when Williams began to suffer some setbacks they affected his confidence. Commentators often say he fell out of the top 32 but this was in fact only on the provisional rankings under the old system. But he was relegated from the top 16, spending a season having to go to qualifiers at Prestatyn.
Williams, though, demonstrated his class by immediately returning to the elite bracket and he eventually returned to world no.1 as well, winning the 2011 German Masters.
Now, he is 39 and, by dint of a change in rules, old enough to play in the World Seniors Championship. He can still play to a really high standard, as he showed during his classic semi-final against Mark Allen at this season’s International Championship, but Williams is currently stuck in a kind of snooker limbo. He regularly beats the players ranked beneath him in the world rankings but does not as regularly beat those above him. Hence, he is positioned just on the fringe of the top 16. As it stands right now he will have to win three matches to play at the Crucible in two months’ time, though that can of course change with a number of counting tournaments coming up.
Only he could say whether he still enjoys playing professional snooker. It’s harder when you have a family and more responsibility and, of course, the longer you do something, the less of a novelty it is.
But many will hope there are still sunny days ahead for Mark Williams. Where he stands in the all time list of champions is a matter of opinion but that he belongs in the pantheon of greats is not in dispute.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.