Mark Williams won the Betfred World Championship for the third time by beating John Higgins 18-16 in one of the all-time great Crucible finals.
Williams won seven consecutive frames from 7-7 to lead 14-7, and despite a rally from Higgins to 15-15 he closed out victory in the 34th frame, in the closest final since 2005.
And his promise to bare all for his winning press conference turned out to be the naked truth as he spoke to the world’s media dressed in nothing but a towel.
Having lifted the trophy in 2000 and 2003, Welshman Williams sets a new record of 15 years for the longest gap in between titles. The 43-year-old is the oldest winner since Ray Reardon took the crown in 1978 at the age of 45.
Naked ambition: Williams promised after the quarter-finals that if he won the title he would do his last press conference without his clothes
He joins Mark Selby as a three-time Crucible champion, behind only Stephen Hendry with seven, Steve Davis with six, Ronnie O’Sullivan with five and Higgins with four.
Williams didn’t even make it to the Crucible last year having dropped out of the top 16 and lost in the qualifying rounds. He insists he contemplated retirement last summer, having not won a ranking title for six years. Throwing the dice, he tried the SightRight coaching method, which completely changed his alignment and ball-sighting. The results have been astonishing.
Williams has won three ranking titles this season, bringing his career tally to 21, and capped it off with snooker’s most prestigious prize. The Cwm cueman banks the biggest cheque in snooker history, £425,000, to bring his total for the season to £885,400. He jumps from seventh to third in the world rankings.
Williams, Higgins and O’Sullivan, the trio of all-time greats who all turned professional in 1992, have won ten of the 20 ranking events between them this season.
Having finished runner-up to Selby last year, Higgins becomes the first player to lose back-to-back finals since Jimmy White lost five in a row from 1990-94.
Like Williams, the 42-year-old has had a fine season, winning two ranking titles to bring his career tally to 30, but finishes it on a low note, missing the chance to join O’Sullivan on five world crowns. His £180,000 prize money is quite a consolation and the Scot moves up one spot to fourth in the rankings.
Mark Williams – road to the title
Round one: Beat Jimmy Robertson 10-5
Last 16: Beat Robert Milkins 13-7
Quarter-finals: Beat Ali Carter 13-8
Semi-finals: Beat Barry Hawkins 17-15
Final: Beat John Higgins 18-16
Williams held leads of 5-3, 10-7 and 15-10 after the first three sessions. Higgins needed a fast start in tonight’s concluding chapter and he got it with a break of 131. Williams looked set to take the next until he missed a red to a centre pocket on 58, and his opponent punished him with a 67 clearance to close to 15-12.
Another trademark clearance from Higgins, 82 from 47-0 down, got him within two frames. And he dominated the next with runs of 47 and 39 to make it 15-14 at the interval. Frame 30 followed a familiar pattern as Williams got in first and made 47 before missing a red to a top corner, and Higgins ruthlessly punished him with a 62 clearance to square the match for the first time since 7-7.
Williams finally got a frame on the board in the 31st with runs of 41 and 33. And he carried that momentum into the next with a 100, the 84th century of the tournament, to go 17-15 up.
In a dramatic 33rd frame, Williams made 63 before missing match-ball pink to a corner pocket. Yet again Higgins showed nerves of steel to clear with 68 and keep his hopes alive.
But Williams wasn’t to be denied; he fired in a sensational red to a centre pocket and compiled a run of 69 to secure a glorious victory. All three of his Crucible triumphs have come with an 18-16 final scoreline.
“What a match to be involved in,” said Williams. “The break in the last frame was one of the best I’ve made under pressure in my life. What an occasion, to play John at the Crucible in the final is unbelievable. I’m so happy I won.
“The pressure wasn’t too bad but John was making some amazing clearances. He’s the best I’ve ever seen at clearing up. The man is different class.
“A year ago I was thinking about chucking it, and here I am having just won the World Championship. Where has it come from? If I never win another tournament, or my form goes downhill, I don’t care. I’ve just done something I never thought I would. I’ve been playing some unbelievable stuff this season and I felt I could have a good run here.
“I’m looking forward to coming back next year – I’m going to keep my mouth shut and not say anything stupid to end up with no clothes on. But if I win it next year I’ll do a cartwheel naked!”
Williams was supported throughout the event by son Kian and wife Joanne and added: “The little rascal (Kian) has been off school all week and has been up here all the way through. Joanne couldn’t stop crying. I even got a little bit emotional at the end as well, it’s a big occasion. I thought these days had past.”
Higgins said: “I was a embarrassed at 14-7, I didn’t want to lose with a session to spare. I came back well to make it 15-15. In the next two frames I played some bad shots. It was like I wasn’t standing up to the pressure. I made it 17-16 but then he made one of the best breaks I’ve ever seen under pressure.
“Mark wasn’t even here last year. So for him to go from not even qualifying to really doing a number on everyone is great. When you’re rivals you can’t really be friends, but it’s never stopped me having an unbelievable amount of respect for Mark as a player. When we’re getting to the twilight of our careers, it was a dream to play him in the final. That’s what we live for.
“I’ve lost two finals in a row now and it heart-breaking. It’s like a drug this game – and that atmosphere tonight, the one table set up, if I never get here again at least I can say I’ve sampled it a few times.
“People are saying it could be your last chance but I could come back and make a fist of it next year, you just never know what’s going to happen. I’ll definitely be back to give it another go.”