One of the many sneering newspaper columnists who take great delight in running down snooker previewed the 2001 Masters by poking fun at tournament organisers’ choice of player for pre-event interviews.
His snidey piece ended with the words: ‘who is Paul Hunter?’
At the time, Paul Hunter was a rising star. Young, blonde, good looking and good fun, he had woken up to the fact that although partying was enjoyable, it wasn’t doing his career any favours.
His new manager, Brandon Parker, told him that he could be a top player for a long time if he knuckled down, and knuckle down he did without losing the effortless likeability that endeared him to so many.
Hunter was a player who didn’t seem to get flustered. He loved snooker and was an obvious talent.
Even so, he had to prove it and Wembley Conference Centre proved to be the perfect stage.
During the 2001 Masters he was hit by a major personal blow. Morrell Stevens, father of his best friend on the circuit, Matthew, died as the tournament was in progress. Still, Hunter reached the final and would have fancied his chances against Fergal O’Brien.
Yet it was the determined Dubliner who made the early running, winning the first session 6-2.
What to do during the mid session break? Hit the practice table? Talking tactics with an advisor?
No. Paul went to his hotel room with his girlfriend, Lyndsey, and did what a couple in love do. He would, famously, later refer to this as ‘putting plan B into operation.’
At 7-3 down he was still heading for a heavy defeat but he then started to play and the happy-go-lucky persona gave way to someone with genuine fighting qualities, reeling off centuries and producing a performance of the highest standard.
A couple of hours later he was the winner, 10-9. A remarkable comeback but, as the following years would prove, by no means a one-off.
A year later Hunter was in the final again against Mark Williams, who at the time was at his peak.
Williams led 5-0. Again, a big defeat loomed, again Hunter turned it round, winning 10-9.
And then in 2004 he reached a third Masters final, this time trailing Ronnie O’Sullivan 7-2 before hitting back to win 10-9: three finals, three comebacks, three victories in deciders.
I wonder sometimes if the key to Hunter’s victories was that, a little like Jimmy White, he loved snooker so much that the result was not always the be all and end all. Did that relax him when others would waver? (It didn’t, as it transpired, in the 2003 World Championship, when he lost from a long way ahead to Ken Doherty in the semi-finals).
Who knows how many more great moments Hunter would have featured in – at the Masters and elsewhere – had tragedy not intervened.
He did as much as anyone and more than most in the last decade to ensure the prestige of snooker’s top invitation tournament remained as high as it should be.
And he did it all with a smile. Who was Paul Hunter? That was Paul Hunter.