Mark Williams – pictured here picking up his MBE with wife, Jo, and son, Connor – begins the new season in the unusual position of having to start a round earlier than normal having dropped out of the top 16 after 12 years at the end of last season.
Journalistic impartiality is all well and good but I’ve always liked Mark as a player and a person and would, for one, be delighted if he returned to the elite group when the list is revised next May.
He took a little longer than his contemporaries Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins to win a ranking title but did so at the 1996 Welsh Open and has since won a total of 16.
That Welsh success was achieved with a highest break of only 76. It led Sky Sports pundit Willie Thorne to predict that Williams’s victory was a one-off.
Let’s hope for Willie’s sake that he didn’t put money on this.
Ever since, whenever he is asked who he would like to play in his next match, rather than picking either player actually involved in the contest that will decide his opponent Williams instead replies “Willie Thorne.”
What the Welsh Open win illustrated is what has marked out Williams’s career: namely, he is a far from one dimensional snooker player. He finds different ways to win, be it ugly or with flair, and this has been extremely effective over the past decade.
In winning tournaments, he has often scrapped through the early matches before turning on the style in the later rounds.
He is one of the best single ball potters there’s ever been and, crucially, is excellent under pressure. He demonstrated this none more so than in winning the 1998 Wembley Masters on a re-spotted black against Stephen Hendry.
Mark’s character doesn’t always come over to the public. In the main this is because he’s never been interested in publicity.
I’ve heard some say he’s difficult. I can honestly say that I’ve never had a problem with him whenever I’ve interviewed him.
He is a remarkably laid back man. Everyone feels pressure in top level sport but the trick is not to show it. Williams has this nailed down.
I remember the concluding day of his semi-final against Higgins at the 2000 World Championship. John led 14-10 after the morning session and was widely expected to wrap up victory in the evening.
What do players do when contemplating such a heavy defeat? Perhaps go and lie in a darkened room or pace the hotel corridor.
Not Williams. He went out and bought a Billy the Bass dancing fish and brought it into the press room to entertain all and sundry.
I seem to remember the fish danced to Bobby McFerrin’s song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ which should probably be Williams’ personal theme tune (a word of warning, mind: in a supremely ironic twist of fate, McFerrin was later diagnosed with clinical depression.)
Mark won the semi-final 17-15 and came from 13-7 down to beat his good friend and fellow Welshman Matthew Stevens 18-16 in the final. He was the first Welsh world champion for 21 years and the first left-hander ever to win the title.
Famously, Mark didn’t shake John’s hand before that final session. The Scot later confessed it had caused a mental implosion but I don’t believe for a minute that Williams did it deliberately.
One tactic he has employed down the years, though, is to often not bother about making a century even if one is on.
I think this could be construed as him saying to his opponent: you and I both know I’m good enough to make it but I’m so keen to get on and win the next frame as well that I’m not going to.
There’s nothing wrong with this but if he had applied himself in such situations he would surely have many more than the 212 centuries currently to his name.
As a boy, Williams looked up to Hendry. As a professional, he became Hendry’s best friend on the circuit.
His cheeky disdain for reputations was brought into focus when he beat Hendry 9-2 to win the 1997 British Open. Asked how he felt Mark replied: “I’m gutted. I wanted to beat him 9-1.”
There has been plenty of opportunity for banter on both sides since. I’m sure Hendry was not particularly sympathetic when Williams dropped out of the top 16.
Williams is a big admirer of Steve Davis as well and the respect is mutual which, again, has led to a fair degree of Mickey-taking.
An example: when Davis dropped out of the top 16 in 2000, Mark consoled him by saying “don’t worry, Steve, I can get you some tickets for the Masters.”
He has experienced some bizarre injuries over the years. He once needed stitches in his hand after being bitten while feeding a pig’s ear to his dog.
A journalist colleague of mine once drove a golf cart into him in Thailand. Williams had to pull out of the 2006 Grand Prix after damaging his wrist in the gym.
After he won the 2000 World Championship he left the trophy outside on his drive overnight. Luckily, nobody walked off with it.
He’s very funny and not at all malicious. Unfortunately, the public generally don’t see this side of him.
He once said in a newspaper interview that he played snooker primarily to make money. Inevitably, some shook their head at this but they should remember that Williams hails from a working class family in South Wales where, as a boy, the idea of becoming a millionaire most have seemed remote.
After he won his second world title in 2003 he visibly took his foot off the gas. The wheels came off just after he won the LG Cup to complete a ‘grand slam’ of all four BBC televised tournaments.
He had won his opening match in 48 consecutive ranking events and we journalists – nice folk that we are – were so convinced he would make it to 50 that a plan was hatched to buy a cake.
Fortunately we didn’t part with any dubiously earned cash because his run came to an end at the 2003 UK Championship.
Aside from winning the 2006 China Open, he endured a rotten couple of years following this defeat and will start the new campaign at 22nd in the world rankings.
However, like Jimmy White, Williams will not be too proud to go to Prestatyn or Sheffield to play in the qualifiers.
He is not that sort of person. He will merely turn up, play and try his best. If that doesn’t yield success he will go home and wait for his next match. He will make neither a fuss nor excuses.
Williams is far too good to be outside the top eight, never mind the top 16.
I get the feeling he’ll be back.