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Can Mark Williams Follow Through on Favourite Tag?

With three rounds remaining in the Northern Ireland Open, Mark Williams finds himself in the unusual situation of being the favourite to land the title in Belfast.

Mark Williams German Masters 2011 (ML)
Williams received a two-minute standing ovation at the Tempodrom in 2011. Photo credit: Monique Limbos

Of course, there was once a time when this was commonplace for the Welshman, who enjoyed several spells of domination on the Main Tour in what has overall been an illustrious career.

However, despite the fact that he gives off a relaxed aura of nonchalance and indifference, there must be a part of him that is absolutely dying to get back on the winner’s podium in a tournament that carries ranking event status.

Indeed, it’s been almost seven years since his last success in such an event, coming at the 2011 German Masters in a resurgent spell that eventually resulted in him regaining the world number one position in the rankings.

Since then, Williams has been barren of trophies and has watched as his contemporaries Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins have notched up their own tallies at a consistent rate.

At one stage in 2003, ironically when Williams was at the peak of his powers and an almost unstoppable force in the majors, the trio was locked at 15 ranking event victories apiece.

Since then, the 42 year-old has added only three more, while O’Sullivan and Higgins have both practically doubled their totals with a further 15 and 14 wins respectively.

Williams’ first drought began shortly after his record-breaking period in 2002 and 2003 when he landed all four BBC titles – the Grand Prix being considered the fourth major at the time due to its primetime exposure on the national broadcaster.

The two-time world champion tasted glory just once in a following seven-year stint that also saw him suffer a dramatic slide down the rankings to briefly fall, provisionally at least, outside the top 32.

A player of his class couldn’t stay down for long, though, and Williams duly responded in 2010 by capturing the China Open for the third time.

He should have followed it by completing what would have been a hat-trick of successes at the UK Championship but inexplicably squandered a 9-5 lead to Higgins, who was pumped up upon returning to the sport following his six-month suspension for bringing the sport into disrepute.

Williams didn’t let the disappointment affect him initially as he subsequently went to Berlin for the inaugural German Masters and ultimately walked away with the triumph in front of 2,500 enthusiastic fans in a spine-tingling atmosphere.

The result helped him to regain the top spot in the rankings at the end of the season but his collapse in the UK final came back to haunt him on numerous occasions in 2011.

First, Williams again let slip a commanding position against Higgins in the semi-finals of the World Championship – the last time he has reached the single table set-up at the Crucible.

At the Australian Open, he lost the final 9-8 having at one point led Stuart Bingham 8-5, and repeated the trick in the Shanghai Masters when Mark Selby controversially reversed a 9-7 deficit at the expense of the “Welsh Potting Machine”.

All those defeats obviously hurt and it wasn’t until nearly four years later that Williams would again feature in a ranking event decider.

Amazingly, Williams threw away a 3-0 lead over Joe Perry as the latter fought back to claim his maiden ranking title with a 4-3 success at the death.

Earlier this year, Williams went on a resurgent run to the final of the China Open but this time there were no collapses, only he was ultimately denied by Selby again, who by now had come to possess the power in the game that he once boasted.

In the interim between his German Masters victory and the present, Williams has often stated publicly that he doesn’t feel that he has the game anymore to contend with the likes of O’Sullivan, Higgins, and Selby for silverware, although that run in Beijing has appeared to have changed his mindset to a degree.

Earlier this season, Williams finally tasted the sweet moment of victory again when he emerged with the Six Red World Championship crown – an invitational competition staged annually in Bangkok.

With numerous runs to the middle rounds of ranking events in recent seasons, Williams has remained steadily just inside or just outside the top 16 in the world rankings and will likely qualify for the prestigious Masters in January, a tournament he has won twice.

But for those who label him as the coolest customer on the circuit, where is he truly mentally these days?

The remainder of this week at the Waterfront Hall will determine the answer to that very question.

Williams is the only member of the current top 16 to feature in the last eight of the Home Nations series event, with an incredible five of the remaining competitors ranked outside the world’s top 50.

Potentially his toughest challenge could come in the form of 17 year-old prodigy Yan Bingtao, who he would face in the final if they should both make it to that point.

First, though, Williams must overcome Mike Dunn, a bogey player who he has unbelievably never beaten other than in the single frame Shoot-Out.

Being able to banish those four defeats to the Englishman on Friday could go a long way to suggesting whether or not Williams will fulfil his favourite’s tag one last time.

O’Sullivan and Higgins, both also from the Class of 1992, have been showing him for years how a legend is supposed to do it and surely it’s time now for Williams to reclaim his rightful spot alongside that pair as a champion on the tour.

Live coverage of the Northern Ireland Open continues on Eurosport and Quest.

Click here to view the draw. (Times: CET)

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