Mark Williams staved off a Martin Gould fightback to begin the defence of his Betfred World Championship title with a 10-7 win at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
Gould pegged World Champion Williams back from 9-4 to 9-7, before the Welshman eventually managed to get himself over the line and book a second round meeting with either David Gilbert or Joe Perry.
Williams recorded a sensational win at last year’s World Championship, claiming the title in an all-time classic final with John Higgins 18-16.
The victory capped off a remarkable resurgence for Williams, who didn’t even qualify for the event in 2017. The three-time Crucible king set a new record of 15 years for the longest gap between world titles, having also lifted the famous trophy in 2000 and 2003.
Since that victory Williams did partly, by his own admission, let his foot off the gas with some extensive celebrations and a cut back in practice. However, the 22-time ranking event winner did still manage to add to his title tally by winning the Yushan World Open last August.
Williams held a 6-3 advantage after this morning’s play and a dramatic opening frame this evening saw him extend that cushion.
A break of 52 helped Gould to come from behind and force a re-spotted black. However, his efforts to claw his way back into the frame were in vain as Williams deposited a superb black from long range to move further ahead at 7-3.
Gould claimed the following frame to reduce the gap to three, but breaks of 70 and 69 helped Williams to move to the verge of victory at 9-4.
However, it was from there that Gould mounted a charge to push himself back into contention. Consecutive breaks of 70, 87 and 76 saw him move within two frames of Williams at 9-7.
World number three Williams wasn’t to be denied a second round berth, he controlled the 17th frame to secure the 10-7 victory.
“The first round is always one of the toughest to get through and he was probably one of the hardest qualifiers to draw,” said 44-year-old Williams. “Overall I thought I played really well. It was only towards the end that I started getting a bit twitchy. He got back from 9-4 to 9-7 and if he had made it 9-8 then I would have been under pressure. It was a tough first round match and I thought I played quite well.
“I just think my form has been improving for the last month or two and it showed there. Even though the last few frames were a bit scrappy, overall it was good.
“It was absolutely brilliant walking out this morning as defending champion. I’ve been looking forward to that for months. The cheer and support that I had was unbelievable. It was probably the loudest applause I have ever had walking into an arena. It was a brilliant feeling, I was buzzing.”
On the other table, 15th seed Stephen Maguire fell 5-4 behind against Crucible debutant Tian Pengfei. Maguire has lost in the first round in eight of his 15 previous appearances in Sheffield and will need to win six of the last ten frames tomorrow to avoid a ninth early exit.
Tian, one of six Chinese players in the field this year, took the opening frame with a break of 52. Glasgow’s Maguire levelled with a run of 80 then took a scrappy third frame, before Tian made it 2-2 with a 59.
In frame five, Maguire came from 58-0 down to take it with a clinical 62 clearance, then he added the sixth for 4-2. But Tian rose to the occasion as the session progressed, winning the last three frames with runs of 45, 100 and 70. They resume on Sunday at 7pm.