Pin-up snooker champion of laid-back temperament who was known as the 'Beckham of the Baize'
Wednesday 11 October 2006
Paul Alan Hunter, snooker player: born Leeds, West Yorkshire 14 October 1978; Benson & Hedges Masters champion 2001, 2002, 2004; Welsh Open champion 1998, 2002; British Open champion 2002; married 2004 Lyndsey Fell (one daughter); died Huddersfield, West Yorkshire 9 October 2006.
Soon after the death, aged 27, of the Yorkshire snooker professional Paul Hunter, the tributes began to flood in for the player nicknamed the "Beckham of the Baize". It was a sobriquet Hunter revelled in; he and his wife, Lyndsey, were regularly referred to as snooker's answer to "Posh and Becks". They were indeed a golden couple, but an approachable, down-to-earth pair, in keeping with their Yorkshire roots.
Hunter played professionally for 11 years, after being earmarked for stardom when he won a "Star of the Future" competition at a Pontin's Holiday Centre. He won six major tournaments but never the world championship that many pundits believed was his destiny. But such was his character that Hunter treated victory and defeat with the same equanimity. "He was just a genuinely nice guy who never fell out with anyone," said Stephen Hendry, the seven-times world champion. "He just wanted to play the game."
Paul Hunter grew up in Leeds but often travelled to Bradford in his amateur days to practise alongside Joe Johnson, the world champion of 1986. Alan, his father, was a constant travelling companion and such was their relationship that they were more like brothers than dad and son. Paul didn't win any of the major amateur titles but it didn't take him long to make the transition to the professional ranks. He was only 17, but in his first season reached the semi-finals of the 1996 Welsh Open.
He soon learned that being in the spotlight opened his private life to public scrutiny. He was fined £4,550 by the game's governing body and docked 1,140 ranking points after being found guilty of using cannabis during an event in 1997. High jinks on a Blackpool beach also ensured his becoming perfect copy for the tabloid press.
Media intrusion never unduly worried Hunter. He accepted it went with the territory and revelled in his pin-up status. Forever sanguine in his approach to life on and off the table, he made many friends and few enemies. His laid-back temperament enhanced his ability to compete at the highest level.
Hunter had an affinity for the Welsh tournament, winning his first ranking title two years later and regaining the trophy in 2002. In 1998, his talent was recognised by the Snooker Writers' Association, who made him their "young player of the season". If he enjoyed Wales, he positively adored the Wembley Conference Centre, home of the Benson & Hedges Masters. As Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry are synonymous with Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, then Paul Hunter will always be linked to Wembley.
In 2001 he won the title for the first of three occasions, beating the Irishman Fergal O'Brien 10-9 after being 7-3 behind. His mid-match strategy is remembered just as vividly as his ultimate success. Later, after putting the finishing touches to the great escape, Hunter revealed his "Plan B" - a sex session with Lyndsey at the tournament hotel. "Sex was the last thing on my mind," he recalled:
I just wasn't in the mood. But I had to do something to break the tension. It was a quick session - around 10 minutes or so - but I felt great afterwards. She jumped in the bath, I had a kip and then played like a dream.
Hunter produced similar recoveries to retain the title 12 months later and regain it in 2004. His 2004 success against Ronnie O'Sullivan was to prove his last ever tournament triumph.
By then he had already suffered one health scare, having been diagnosed with testicular cancer, leading to the removal of a cyst. He made a full recovery in time for the 2004 World Championship, reaching the semi-finals before Ken Doherty "did a Hunter" on him. As he led 15-9, a first-ever Crucible Theatre final appearance looked a certainty. Instead, his Irish opponent rallied to win the match 17-16.
Despite his dejection Hunter, the perfect sportsman, wrapped his arms round Doherty and wished him good luck for the final. And the smile quickly returned as he married Lyndsey in a spectacular wedding in Jamaica. It seemed only a matter of time before Hunter, then up to fourth in the world rankings, would attain the sport's highest honour.
Instead, his form took a turn for the worse. He began to suffer unexplained stomach pains and almost withdrew from the 2005 Irish Masters. Eventually, investigation revealed six cysts on his colon. He broke the news to his fellow professionals during an event in China. Some were in tears; Hunter and Jimmy White got drunk together. "Paul just grabbed me and two bottles of vodka later we had it all out," said White, another player to have suffered testicular cancer.
Hunter bravely competed at the 2005 World Championships, losing to Michael Holt in the first round. A few weeks later, he began his chemotherapy treatment, joking at the time: "I'll have less hair than Willie Thorne."
He returned to the circuit the following season when others might have hidden away. Against the odds, he participated in the 2006 World Championship, going down 10-5 to Neil Robertson, an Australian left-hander, in his opening game. It was to be the last ever match of Hunter's career.
By now, the cancer was at an advanced stage where treatment was aimed at stopping the spread of the disease rather than curing it. The news that Hunter's ranking had been frozen for the 2006-07 season couldn't hide the fact that he would never play again.
Sir Rodney Walker, chairman of World Snooker, said:
Paul was a man who had everything going for him - an outstanding talent, good looks, fame, riches, charm and a beautiful wife. This shows us just how quickly life can change.
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