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Lee Walker “milking” Mark Williams banter ahead of Champion of Champions debut

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Lee Walker is the defending champion

Lee Walker admits he will “milk the opportunity to take the mickey” out of great friend Mark Williams ahead of his Champion of Champions debut, and what could be his professional swansong.

The World Seniors champion is gearing up for his maiden appearance at the prestigious invitational event, where he plays Mark Selby in the opening match at the Bolton Whites Hotel on Monday.

World number eight Williams was set to complete the line-up via the rankings, but Mark Allen snatched the final place from under his nose after triumphing at the Northern Ireland Open last week.

And Walker admits he is enjoying plenty of banter at the expense of the three-time World champion, who will likely accompany him for the trip to Bolton.

“It’s not very often I get the chance to take the mickey out of him on the snooker side of things, so now I’ve got this opportunity, I am going to milk it as much as I can!” the Welshman laughed.

“It’s a tournament that I’m really looking forward to. If I’m being perfectly honest, it’s a tournament that I probably thought I’d never get to play in – certainly at the stage I’m at in my career.

“Although it wasn’t a ranking tournament, I still thought my chances of winning a tournament to get into the Champion of Champions had gone. I’m super excited to play in it.”

Walker also highlighted his friend’s acting ability following Williams’ recent cameo in the BBC sitcom The Tuckers alongside Steve Speirs.

“He was like a young George Clooney!” he chuckled. “I think he’s had [Steven] Spielberg and a few of the other top directors on the phone already this week. After the Crucible, he’s off to Hollywood, I think!

“To be fair, he wasn’t too bad. He did watch it about 850 times, mind! I wouldn’t tell him this, but he was pretty good.”

Having fallen off the tour last season and subsequently failed to regain his place via Q School, Walker revealed the Champion of Champions could be the last professional tournament of his career.

A respected SightRight and WPBSA coach, the 46-year-old has switched his focus to mentoring – frequently travelling to events and offering guidance to the likes of Williams, Ng On Yee and Andy Lee – and admits he no longer has the bug to compete at a serious level.

“I’ve sat there [coaching at tournaments] and I’m not missing playing,” he explained. “Usually when I go there, I’m desperate to get on the table. I haven’t found that all, so it’s telling me this is probably the time to call it a day.

“As things stand at the moment, I’m not looking to get back on the tour. I’m going to concentrate on my coaching – I’m running two snooker clubs at the moment, and I’ve just agreed a job in a new academy in China.

“I still want to play in the World Seniors and Welsh amateur events but unless my circumstances change, this will probably the last professional tournament I’ll ever play.

“You can’t go on forever. Even the likes of [Ronnie] O’Sullivan, [John] Higgins and Williams – at one time or another, they’ll have to eventually retire.”

This comes just under six months after he enjoyed a fairytale Crucible triumph; beating Tony Knowles, Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty and David Lilley, before recovering from 4-2 down to deny Jimmy White in the World Seniors Championship final.

Walker, who came through three qualifying rounds to reach the main stages, certainly did in style, having also overturned 2-0 and 3-0 deficits to see off Doherty and defending champion David Lilley respectively. And he highlighted the presence of son Noah as a huge inspiration behind his success.

“It was like it was meant to be,” he smiled. “Obviously, it’s not the main tournament, but it’s still at the Crucible; it’s still one table. I played Jimmy White, Ken Doherty and Stephen Hendry; to play those three was really special.

“One of the things that really helped me was having my son there. Every time I missed a shot and wanted to smash my cue up, I looked at him and it made me realise it was nothing to get wound up over, whereas in the past, I probably would have.”

A 1997 Crucible quarter-finalist and 2018 Gibraltar Open semi-finalist, Walker played many of the sport’s biggest stars during a combined 21 years on the professional tour.

But there is one notable name he never ticked off the list, though he could yet if they both reach the final in Bolton.

“As a pro, the only player I’ve never met is Ronnie,” he said. “Whereas usually in tournaments, I want to stay as far away from Ronnie as I possibly can, there was a little part of me hoping I’d maybe draw him.

“If this is to be my last tournament, it would’ve been special playing him for the first time.”