John Higgins and Mark Williams are seeded to meet in this year’s Betfred.com World Championship semi-finals.
They have played each other at this stage twice before and the matches were memorable for two incidents that had nothing to do with the actual snooker.
In 1999, Higgins was defending champion. He had won the race between his contemporaries Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan to win the world title and overhaul Stephen Hendry at the top of the rankings.
O’Sullivan was brilliant but erratic, his personal life chaotic. Williams was thought to be the junior member of the trio (despite being the eldest) but was rising fast.
His dramatic 10-9 defeat of Hendry on a re-spotted black at the Masters in early 1998 was proof of a big match temperament and the following season he went on a remarkable run, finishing runner-up in the German Masters and then winning the Irish Open, Welsh Open and Thailand Masters.
Williams thus arrived in Sheffield as one of the four favourites – with Hendry, Higgins and O’Sullivan – to lift the trophy. All four made the semis.
My memory of Williams v Higgins has boiled down to one strange interruption on the Friday morning with the match around level. As I recall, Higgins was at the table when he noticed some liquid dropping down on to the table. He pointed up at the Crucible roof to the referee, Alan Chamberlain, who also noticed oil or water drip-dripping on to the baize.
Play was suspended while a humble towel was placed on the cloth to protect it.
I was backstage and it’s fair to say calm did not reign. Officials, technicians and other assorted bods busied themselves to find out what the cause was.
It created a major headache because the exact reason for the leak was not obvious. It allowed Clive Everton to reminisce on Radio 5 Live about the 1973 World Championship when rain – coming through a crack in the roof – stopped play.
Half an hour or so passed before the leak was plugged. It was put down to condensation, an explanation I’m not sure anyone really believed, least of all me and I wrote the press release. More likely it was oil from the TV lighting rig. Either way, I don’t think it ultimately affected the result. Williams, strong all season, won 17-10.
A year later it was Williams v Higgins in the last four again. Again, Williams had enjoyed a fine season, winning the UK Championship and getting to several finals.
But he lost six of the eight frames of the Saturday morning and trailed 14-10 going into the final session.
Williams spent the afternoon as any leading sportsman would: he went out and bought a ‘Billy the Bass’ dancing fish and tormented anyone he could find with it.
I recall the fish danced to Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ which could perhaps stand as Williams’s anthem for life. Chilling in the pressroom, he did not bear the countenance of a man about to suffer a disappointing defeat in a tournament he had looked likely to win.
And so to the evening and an odd incident which would affect the result. The two players entered the arena but Williams walked to the table and broke off without shaking Higgins’s hand.
Knowing Mark, I have no doubt this was merely an oversight. He had probably been driven slightly delirious by five hours of Billy the Bass.
To Higgins, though, it felt like a snub and it knocked his thinking. He allowed himself to dwell on it just enough for it to affect his concentration while at the table and Williams, playing as if he had nothing to lose, started to claw back the deficit.
I don’t remember the Welsh left-hander making a string of big breaks but he played good, hard match snooker and potted the pressure balls.
He won 17-15 and then beat Matthew Stevens 18-16 from 13-7 down to win the first of his two world titles.
I asked him after the final how he would celebrate. He said he wouldn’t. This was not entirely untrue. Certainly he didn’t go wild in the aisles because that isn’t his style. Williams is now as he was then: an understated character for whom simple pleasures – family, old friends, cheerful good humour – outrank extravagance or self importance.
The defeat knocked Higgins back. It led to an anxiety about whether he would ever win the title and heralded a string of disappointing Crucible performances that were not resolved until he won again in 2007. He has, of course, now overtaken Williams on total titles.
That they are seeded so highly for the World Championship some 11 years on proves what great players these two are.
I sometimes think the semi-finals are too long but I’d happily watch Higgins v Williams over another four sessions this year.