The fourth European Tour event of the season is traditionally the best.
The Paul Hunter Classic, staged in Furth in Germany, attracts big, passionate crowds, as befitting a tournament bearing Paul’s name.
He was an early supporter of the German Open pro-am, which grew into the PTC, now carrying a top prize of €25,000.
Hunter was best known for his three Masters titles. This in itself was a great achievement but the manner in which he won each final was, taken as a whole, incredible.
If you never experienced the Wembley Conference Centre first hand it may be hard to imagine just what the atmosphere was like. If the Crucible has an intimate, oppressive feel to it then the Conference Centre was the opposite: it was big, boisterous, rowdy and intimidating.
To merely stand up and play to any sort of standard in such an environment could be hard. To play great snooker in the Wembley bearpit was a test that few passed, but Paul passed it three times.
It was to Hunter’s advantage, though, that he was a natural crowd favourite. A young, good looking lad who played an eye-catching game, audiences warmed to him. He seemed unaffected by success, remembering where he had come from.
In his first Masters final in 2001, he faced Fergal O’Brien, a tough match player of the old school. It as a clash of styles and one which O’Brien had the better of when he carried a 6-2 lead into the final session.
Between sessions, of course, Paul and his girlfriend Lyndsey ‘put plan B into operation.’ He certainly seemed relaxed on the restart and played quite brilliantly, making four centuries in the final session to win 10-9.
When I went to bed many hours later Fergal was sat on Paul’s lap as a sing-song rang round the bar of the Wembley Plaza. It would have been the same had the result gone the other way.
Maybe this was one of Paul’s strengths. He wanted to win, but if he didn’t it wasn’t the end of the world. He didn’t brood on results and performances like some players do.
He made a successful defence of the title in 2002, again having to recover after Mark Williams, at his peak during this period, forged into a 5-0 lead.
Hunter reduced this to 5-3 at halftime before winning the first two frames of the evening. He took the lead for the first time at 8-7 and eventually prevailed in another decider.
When asked what had happened between sessions this time, Hunter responded: ‘plan C.’
He turned up at the 2003 Masters, bizarrely, wearing a bandana and was beaten in the first round but in 2004 completed the Wembley hat-trick with arguably the best of all comebacks, recovering from 7-2 down to beat Ronnie O’Sullivan 10-9.
O’Sullivan is a great player but also a great frontrunner. However, his most notable defeat from several in front in a final had come at Wembley in 1997 when Steve Davis beat him 10-8 from 8-4 down.
As seven years earlier, this was a rare time in which the crowd were not overwhelmingly for O’Sullivan. Hunter got plenty of support. But the key factor was O’Sullivan’s inability to score with his usual force in the final session. His highest break in the evening’s 11 frames was just 41.
By contrast, Hunter fired in three centuries. “To do this against someone like Ronnie is unbelievable,” he said afterwards. It was, and then again it wasn’t because he had done it twice before.
Snooker at this time was not in the best of health – to put it mildly – off the table. I think Paul Hunter played an important role in keeping it alive on the table.
It is of course a crying shame that he was unable to enjoy its resurgence. A year after his third Masters triumph he was diagnosed with cancer. 18 months later he died.
This week the game gets to honour him. It should do so by matching the spirit he demonstrated so often, and in particular at the Masters: try your best, enjoy yourself and, above all, put on a show.