Paul Hunter, the three times Masters champion and one of the outstanding snooker players of the last decade, has died of cancer. He was just 27.
Hunter was diagnosed with dozens of neuro endocrine tumours of the inner lining of his stomach in March 2005. He fought the disease with bravery and good humour.
Remarkably, Hunter played in all but one tournament during the 2005/06 season, often in serious pain. He won only one match in all this time and fell from fifth in the rankings to 34th. In July, players voted to freeze his ranking at this position in the hope that he may be fit enough to return next season.
A prodigiously talented teenager, he enjoyed a successful junior career, winning the Pontin’s Star of the Future title among other trophies, before turning professional in 1995.
In his debut season, he reached the Welsh Open semi-finals in Newport while still only 17.
His first ranking title came at the 1998 Welsh Open when he was just 19. Hunter beat five members of the game’s top 16, including John Higgins 9-5 in the final, to secure the trophy.
He was shy and unassuming in interviews back then, often appearing akin to a rabbit caught in the headlights during press conferences.
Off table, he was not so reticent. Still a teenager, Hunter went through a phase of immaturity which included fines for a drunken streak at the qualifiers in Blackpool and a positive test for cannabis.
Success and its financial rewards, perhaps inevitably, went to his head and he spent two years in which carousing seemed to take precedence over practising. By his own admission he needed sorting out and Brandon Parker, a businessman from Preston who had previously managed Quinten Hann, agreed to look after him providing he put in the requisite effort.
By the time of his diagnosis, Hunter had won five major titles and joined the world’s top four following his association with Parker, who helped him believe in his own potential and make the necessary changes to his lifestyle to realise it.
Hunter’s career came to be defined by his performances at the Wembley Masters, where he won three extraordinary finals having been well behind on each occasion.
In 2001, he trailed Fergal O’Brien 6-2 after the first session but compiled four centuries in recovering to win 10-9. His revelation to the press afterwards that he had spent the interval with his girlfriend, Lindsey, in his hotel room where they “put plan B into operation” would cement his reputation as a tabloid favourite.
In fact, Hunter, in his cheerfully honest way, confided this information as an innocent aside, but it would follow him round his entire career.
A year later, he trailed Mark Williams 5-0 in their Wembley final but again came back to win 10-9. In 2004, he fought from 7-2 adrift to edge Ronnie O’Sullivan 10-9 and win his third Masters title in four years.
The Wembley Conference Centre, which is being demolished as part of the stadium redevelopment, had a capacity of more than 2,700 and the pressure in those three deciders must have been immense.
Through his three victories, Hunter proved his bottle on the big stage, but his biggest disappointment was his collapse from 15-9 ahead against Ken Doherty in the semi-finals of the 2003 World Championship.
Doherty won nine frames of the ten played in the final session at the Crucible to win 17-16. Hunter put a brave face on this but was privately shattered.
Given his ability, it is surprising he didn’t win more titles. He did capture the 2002 Welsh and British Opens and was one of the favourites for every tournament he entered, but snooker’s standards rose so sharply in the mid 90s through to the present day that titles have generally been shared between a handful of top players, of which Hunter was one.
Off the table, snooker could not have asked for a better ambassador. There was always something to say about Paul, with his colourful life and love of a good time.
He was good looking and had flowing blonde hair, which led him to wear an Alice band for a spell – entirely innocuous but different and therefore interesting for media and fans alike.
In his later years, he developed from shy teenager to confident adult. He always made himself available for interviews and undertook countless promotional engagements.
These continued even after he became aware of his illness. Hunter flew to the China Open in March 2005 having just discovered the nature of his condition, but this did not stop him spending over half an hour after one match signing autographs for excited spectators in the arena.
Outside the venue, he was mobbed by adoring fans and again made himself available for autographs and pictures. He later revealed that he spent one of these nights in China crying down the phone to Lindsey, the enormity of his illness hitting home.
At the Crucible a few weeks later, he received a standing ovation on his entrance. He tried his hardest for the next year but, with negligible feeling in his hands and feet, as well as severe pain in his side, his game had deteriorated.
Hunter’s one success in this period was a 9-8 victory over Jamie Burnett in the last 32 of last season’s UK Championship in York, in which he had needed a snooker on the pink.
In truth, he probably shouldn’t have played at all, but at least the tournaments gave him something to look forward to in between the bouts of chemotherapy.
Hunter never publicly complained about his condition and his cheerful demeanour won him many more friends and admirers.
Despite his illness, he still made time to talk to people. He was naturally friendly and exuded a genuine warmth when dealing with others.
There were hopes he had beaten the cancer during the latter half of 2005 but it returned and various treatments ultimately failed to keep it at bay.
Just last month, a charity night – Paul Hunter’s Big Night Out – was held to raise money for the NET Patient Foundation, set up to help fellow neuro endocrine tumour sufferers. Around £36,000 was raised but, sadly, Hunter could not attend after being admitted to hospital with dehydration. In his last days he was moved into a hospice.
It is a horrible irony that a young man who loved life so much should be afflicted in this way.
For Lindsey, whom he married in 2004, and his wider family, it must be a devastating time and everyone’s thoughts will be with them.
Paul Hunter will be remembered not just as a fine snooker player, but as a charming and likeable person, whose good humour in the face of adversity will have inspired many.
All in snooker – from his fellow players, to officials, journalists and everyone else backstage at tournaments as well of course as his many, many fans – will miss him very much.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of his passing is that he has not lived to see his daughter, Evie Rose, born on Boxing Day 2005, grow up.
One day she will find out how special her father was.
Paul Hunter: October 14, 1978-October 9, 2006