Paul Hunter’s death in October 2006 was the saddest day of the decade for the snooker world.
He arrived at the Irish Masters 18 months earlier complaining of stomach pains. Everyone assumed this was some passing bug and that we’d hear no more about it, but by the time of the China Open the following month he had already been told he had cancer.
It was a rare form of the disease, at first kept at bay by treatment but which would become terminal.
Bravely, Hunter played on. To see him at tournaments ravaged by chemotherapy, unable to properly feel his hands and obviously not fit to perform at his best was heartbreaking.
Yet he never complained. He never asked ‘why me?’ He didn’t change despite his terrible ordeal.
At the turn of the decade, he was at something of a career crossroads, despite being in his early 20s.
His victory in the 1998 Welsh Open and the financial rewards that went with his early career success led him into spending more time partying than practising.
By his own admission he needed to concentrate more on snooker and, in 2000, he joined forces with Brandon Parker, his manager for the rest of his career.
In 2000, Hunter watched his friend, Matthew Stevens, win the Masters. The following year, he completed the first of three remarkable victories in the game’s leading invitation event.
He trailed Fergal O’Brien 6-2 at the mid session interval and went back to his hotel with Lyndsey, who would become his wife, where they did what couples do.
Two frames into the final session, O’Brien led 7-3 but Hunter then found his range and stormed back to win 10-9.
With his boyish charm in full evidence he later told the press he and Lyndsey had “put plan B into operation.” This was an entirely innocent, off the cuff remark but it would end up as a front page tabloid story and follow him round for the rest of his life. It seemed to mould Paul as ‘one of the boys,’ which indeed he was.
The following year, he fell 5-0 adrift to Mark Williams at Wembley but came back again to win 10-9.
In 2004, he completed the hat-trick, recovering from 7-2 down to beat Ronnie O’Sullivan 10-9.
Hunter’s popularity increased with each of these victories. Television viewers warmed to his natural charm just as they had to that of Jimmy White two decades earlier.
Like White, Hunter was easy to relate to and easy to support.
He could have been world champion but for his illness. He came close in 2003 but let slip a 15-9 lead over Ken Doherty in the semi-finals, the Irishman winning 17-16.
The three Masters victories will, rightly, be what he is remembered for on the table, but he also won two ranking titles during the decade: the 2002 Welsh and British Opens.
Hunter was always good value for the press, be it because of his haircut or his wife or something other than the slog of who beat who in whatever tournament was on that week.
Much of his appeal was that he was always himself: a lad from Leeds who loved snooker and loved life.
The media loved Paul, so too did his fellow players and the public.
He was the golden boy cruelly denied his golden future.