Among many poignant moments at the 2022 Masters at Alexandra Palace, one perhaps stood out above all others. During a break in play in the quarter-final between Barry Hawkins and Mark Selby as the Hawk was poised to wrap up victory on Friday night, the cameras fell on Alan Hunter in the crowd – father of the late and still very-much missed three-time champion Paul Hunter. The crowd broke out into a spontaneous and prolonged round of applause.
It was decided by World Snooker in 2016 that from 2017 onwards the elite top 16 players at the prestigious invitation tournament would from that moment forward play for the Paul Hunter Trophy, the magnificent crystal sculpture presented to the champion every year on Sunday night and renamed in the Leeds star’s honour.
Paul lost his life to cancer at the tragically young age of 27 in 2006. First and foremost such a loss was of course felt most keenly by Paul’s family and close friends. But such was his impact on both snooker and wider sport that his passing generated a wave of sorrow and appreciation for all he did for the game - as a player and also a person that endures to this day.
Paul’s dashing and exciting approach to snooker was mirrored by a general zest for life, a big yet humble personality with a cheeky grin and a word for all he met. Though he did win other tournaments, in his all too brief time in the game the three Masters wins – all of them classics won in final-frame deciders – were what defined up to that point.
Many believed that Paul - the only one matching Ronnie O’Sullivan in the glamour and profile stakes at that time - would go on to win the only bigger prize, the World Championship at the Crucible in Sheffield. But sadly all were denied the chance of seeing that from happening and it is impossible to know the full extent of just what he may have gone on to achieve. Instead, we are left with memories of three tremendous Masters successes and an all too short life very well lived.
2001 - Paul Hunter 10 Fergal O’Brien 9
For both players it was a first Masters showpiece, each having just one ranking title to their name - Fergal having previously won the British Open two years before, and Paul winning the Welsh Open in 1998. But this comeback triumph after trailing 6-2 at the end of the afternoon session was to unforgettably reveal a winning and saucy ‘Plan B’ alternative strategy for success.
Paul was struggling early on with Ireland’s Fergal taking a stranglehold and edging close frame after close frame to establish a commanding four-frame advantage going into the evening session.
But Paul was later to confess that - somewhat frustrated after the trials of the afternoon – he had enjoyed a passionate interlude with then girlfriend and later wife Lindsey Fell back at the hotel before returning to the Wembley Conference Centre. The first two frames of the night were shared leaving Fergal 7-3 up.
But then Paul found some inspiration. After clawing one more back he knocked in brilliant breaks of 129 and 101 – and further efforts of 75, 136 and 132 left him 9-8 ahead. Fergal forced a decider and after a 46-minute frame to decide the outcome it was Paul that took the £175,000 first prize before attributing his success to the unplanned ‘perking-up’ he dubbed ‘Plan B’ before the evening finale.
2002 - Paul Hunter 10 Mark Williams 9
Despite the fact he was defending his title, Paul went in to the following year’s final as the underdog with Mark Williams approaching arguably the strongest period of his stellar career and having never lost to his younger opponent, and also being a former winner thanks to the famous ‘re-spotted black’ final of 1998 against Stephen Hendry.
And so it was no great surprise when Mark took early and complete control of the final by surging into a 5-0 lead. Others might have crumbled, but certainly not his redoubtable opponent who had not only the belief generated by 12 months before, but also a by now famous pleasurable default option should it become necessary.
As it turned out, and whether necessary or not, the same magic worked for the emerging superstar. From 5-3 down going into the evening it became a battle royal, with Paul making it five frames on the spin to make it 5-5 and then the pair traded blows like a pair of heavyweights with never more than a frame in it for the rest of the final until the Yorkshireman produced a characteristically nerveless break of 65 to win it for a second time.
“I did exactly what I did before, maybe it’s Plan C this time,” said Paul afterwards. “I had never beaten Mark before so there was no better place to put that straight than here in a final.”
2004 – Paul Hunter 10 Ronnie O’Sullivan 9
By now Paul was seriously rivalling Ronnie O’Sullivan in the promotion and glamour stakes as well as an exciting style on the table, attracting sponsorship and media interest alike at a time when snooker needed new stars to boost a fading profile. And this hugely anticipated match-up quickly became known as the ‘Hairband final’ with Alice bands on show from both players.
The Rocket had at that time won one World Championship and one Masters, and having gone 6-2 ahead by the end of the afternoon session and then added the first of the evening to make it 7-2, there was surely no way back even for the comeback Houdini Masters king this time, was there? After all this was now Ronnie O’Sullivan in command, one of snooker’s best front-runners.
But that of course was to underestimate the man he was up against, and then maybe also the mushrooming folklore surrounding his hotel activities ahead of the decisive and concluding evening frames which Paul yet again acknowledged once the title was safely pouched. Paul had hauled himself out of trouble in two previous Masters finals and the prospect of doing so again, even against this quality of opposition, didn’t seem to daunt him in the slightest.
Paul made breaks of 102, 82, 109, 110 and 58 to get him to 9-9 – and then once again prevailed with the pressure at its greatest.