The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
When Mark Williams won the opening ranking event of the 2003/04 snooker season, it looked as though his dominance in the big events might never end.
With his triumph in the LG Cup, the Welshman completed the rare set of possessing the trophies of all four BBC events at the same time.
Williams beat John Higgins – who compiled a 147 break – in the final at the Guild Hall in Preston to add to the World, UK, and Masters titles that he had captured the campaign before.
The world number one was so reliable in that period that he went on an incredible run of 48 tournaments in which he won at least his first match.
In those days, top 16 players were still seeded through to the main stages – usually the last 32 – of each ranking event, making his streak arguably more remarkable as he would generally have had to have faced a difficult qualifier in the opening round.
Still, Williams didn’t actually feature in another final throughout the remainder of the 2003/04 campaign, and in fact it was a term in which a lot of the top stars struggled for consistency.
Higgins, indeed, was enduring an unusually barren spell and you’d amazingly have to go all the way back to the 2001 British Open for his last success in a ranker – a run of disappointment he wouldn’t break until the same event during the 2004/05 season.
Meanwhile, at the British Open in the 2003/04 snooker season, it was his countryman Stephen Hendry emerging as the champion after a 9-6 victory over Ronnie O’Sullivan in Brighton.
At the very next tournament in York, Hendry reached the final of the UK Championship and faced perennial nearly-man Matthew Stevens for the silverware.
By now, Stevens had long been established as one of the game’s very best competitors, especially over the longer distances, but somehow he was unable to string it all together for one perfect week in a ranking event.
The Welshman had won the prestigious Masters invitational in 2000, but close losses in finals of both the UK and World Championships had damaged his confidence.
It had gotten to the point where people were beginning to question whether or not he’d ever get over the winning line in a ranking event at all.
When Hendry raced into an early 4-0 lead in the 2003 final, then, it didn’t look particularly good.
But Stevens responded in terrific fashion to tie the opening session and for once held his nerve when it mattered the most to secure a 10-8 success over the seven-time world champion.
For the amount of talent at his disposal, that the 2003 UK Championship stands as the former world number four’s sole ranking glory remains one of the sport’s greatest mysteries.
Into the New Year, the next couple of tournaments revolved around thrilling comebacks involving O’Sullivan.
First, the “Rocket” fought back from 8-5 behind to deny what would have been a romantic first ranking success in almost a decade for Steve Davis at the Welsh Open.
Soon after, O’Sullivan reached the final of the Masters, beginning a stretch of six out of the following seven editions in which he would reach the last two in London.
All looked good for what would have been only a second crown in the capital city for O’Sullivan when he led his opponent 7-2 in the final.
If it had been any other challenger the outcome may have been different, but a certain Paul Hunter had an unusual affinity with this competition and that Wembley Conference Centre stage.
In 2001 and 2002, the Leeds potter orchestrated unbelievable comebacks to overcome Fergal O’Brien and Mark Williams in respective deciders.
The brilliant Hunter duly made it a hat-trick, clawing his way back to pip O’Sullivan 10-9 in what turned out to be yet another classic.
Even so, O’Sullivan was generally the most consistent player of the 2003/04 snooker season and was going to head into the World Championship as one of the favourites again.
That said, one of the other hotly-fancied tips ahead of Sheffield came from an unlikely source following a resurgence from the People’s Champion, Jimmy White.
The “Whirlwind” had been in and out of the top 16 of the world rankings in the prior handful of years and had reached only one ranking event final since losing the last of his six World Championship title deciders in Sheffield in 1994.
However, at the UK Championship and again in the Masters, there were signs that his game was getting back to near his best.
In reaching the semi-finals of both – narrowly losing to Stevens at the Barbican Centre and O’Sullivan in the Masters – White had given his legion of fans renewed hope.
It subsequently got even better as the former world number two embarked on a run to the final of the European Open in Malta in March.
White, by now 41 and considered old for a snooker player at the time, lost seven frames on the spin and ran out a disappointed 9-3 loser to up-and-coming star Stephen Maguire.
Many felt, like with Davis’ defeat in Newport, that the chance for one last hurrah had potentially passed him by.
But fast forward a month and White was back in contention again, beating the recent Irish Masters champion Peter Ebdon 6-5 to reach another showdown for the silverware.
White’s opponent in Glasgow for the Players Championship title was Hunter, and this time there was to be no heroics from the latter.
With a tense 9-7 triumph, the Londoner rolled back the years and secured his tenth and final ranking event success – almost twelve years after his previous champagne moment at that level.
The 2004 World Championship began only a week later, which in hindsight was probably too soon for a man notorious for over-celebrating his best achievements.
White was being talked about as a possible contender and he could have even ended the 2003/04 snooker season as an unlikely world number one had things gone his way, but he struggled to replicate the same level of form and bowed out in the first round with a tame 10-8 loss to qualifier Barry Pinches.
Instead, it was O’Sullivan who rose to the occasion to land his second World Championship trophy.
With the help of coach and six-time former winner Ray Reardon, O’Sullivan had polished up his tactical game and throughout the 17 days was an unstoppable force.
After beating Maguire in the first round, O’Sullivan’s toughest obstacle to overcome was in the last 16 when he only just managed to negotiate the task of Andy Hicks, 13-11.
After that, it was lift off and O’Sullivan thrashed Anthony Hamilton 13-3 in the quarter-finals before another utter destruction of Hendry in the semi-finals, 17-4.
There was a brief scare at the outset of the final when he lost the first five frames to unexpected finalist Graeme Dott, but brief it was.
O’Sullivan didn’t take too long to finally settle and romped home to another major glory with a comprehensive 18-8 triumph.
The sport’s most talented player and its biggest star was back on top of the world.
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