The final part of our countdown of the greatest moments of the Masters…
(2) HIGGINS BEATS O’SULLIVAN IN BLACK BALL THRILLER (2006)
A decade after they met as 19 year-olds, Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins crossed cues in the Masters final again but their 2005 match was a similar story, with O’Sullivan winning 10-3.
A year later they contested a third Masters final. With Wembley Conference Centre due for demolition, this iconic venue had its roof raised with one of the finest and most exciting matches the tournament had ever seen.
After winning the opening frame, O’Sullivan produced some heavy hitting as breaks of 139 and 138 put him 3-0 up and suggested a third runaway victory against Higgins. But the Scot, whose record in the Masters outside of his victory in 1999 and those two final defeats was nothing special, this time turned it around. The best all round player since Steve Davis, Higgins mixed attack and defence to great effect and came out of the afternoon leading 5-3.
The standard of potting and break-building in the evening session was supremely high as the match moved on to 7-5 in favour of Higgins before O’Sullivan pulled level, making a third century, 100, in frame 14. He then regained the lead at 9-8 before Higgins set up the decider a match of this quality deserved.
It proved to be a thrilling finale. O’Sullivan got in first with a long red to the green pocket and made a break of 60 but jawed an awkward cut-back red to the yellow pocket. From this, Higgins missed a long red but left nothing easy. O’Sullivan attempted a difficult pot, missed and left Higgins a chance to the right centre. He played it slowly and the red looked as if it would stay out but finally dropped to set up an opportunity to make a match winning clearance.
Under intense pressure, Higgins put together 64 to secure victory on the final black. These two great champions had given the Conference Centre a memorable send-off.
(1) WILLIAMS BEATS HENDRY ON RE-SPOT (1998)
Mark Williams was a member of snooker’s class of 1992 and, like his contemporaries John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan, would prove to be a star pupil.
The laidback left-hander broke through by winning his home event, the Welsh Open, in 1996 and more silverware would follow before the 1998 Masters, a tournament which remains one of the defining moments in his career.
Playing the great Stephen Hendry at the Wembley Conference Centre would have turned lesser legs to jelly. Indeed, when the Scot, who had lost his grip on the world title the previous year, built a 5-2 lead it looked like business as usual. Williams, though, crucially fluked a snooker in the last frame of the afternoon and cleared to the pink after the second of Hendry’s failed escapes.
A 100 break from Williams in frame 10 made it 5-5 and the players entered the final interval level at 6-6. A missed brown from Williams in the 13th frame let Hendry in for 7-6. In the next, leading 44-0, Williams fouled in potting a red and Hendry cleared with 69 before a 78 made it 9-6 to the six times champion.
He was poised to win 10-6 but missed the pink playing the cue ball at pace around the table to obtain position on the black. Williams won the frame and pulled back to 9-9 to set up a decider.
Hendry held the advantage at 56-34 with four colours remaining – 22 up with 22 on – but missed the brown from distance and Williams cleared to force a re-spot, a repeat of the first Masters final in 1975 when John Spencer edged Ray Reardon but this time live on television with considerably more money at stake.
With his fourth shot on the black, Williams left it pottable to the left centre but dead straight with the cue ball under the opposite side cushion. Hendry rolled it slowly across the nap and the black stayed out, leaving Williams with a much easier pot to the green pocket to complete his 10-9 victory.
The WPBSA ensured plenty of post-tournament publicity by sending the £145,000 winners’ cheque not to Mark J. Williams in Wales but another Mark Williams, a professional lower down the list who lived in London. Thankfully for the governing body he returned it to them uncashed.
The more famous Mark Williams went on to win a second Masters crown in 2003 as well as two World Championship and two UK Championship titles but few victories in his career were as dramatic or significant.
As he said shortly after that extra black finally went in 16 years ago: “This is something I’ll remember all my life.”
Photographs by Monique Limbos.