Snooker; Paul Hunter: Suddenly, life becomes serious for Hunter, snooker's jack-the-lad

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Composure comes easily to snooker players; without it they might as well find another means of making a living. But huge shock waves continue to resound through this most po-faced of sports following the announcement that 26-year-old Paul Hunter, one of the most popular players on the circuit and the nearest thing snooker has to a sex symbol, is suffering from cancer ( but not of the colon, as has been reported).

Composure comes easily to snooker players; without it they might as well find another means of making a living. But huge shock waves continue to resound through this most po-faced of sports following the announcement that 26-year-old Paul Hunter, one of the most popular players on the circuit and the nearest thing snooker has to a sex symbol, is suffering from cancer ( but not of the colon, as has been reported).

Despite the devastating discovery of a cancer as yet undiagnosed, Hunter has issued a defiant announcement, through his manager Brandon Parker, to the effect that he intends to play in the World Championship at the Crucible, which begins on Saturday. He will begin chemotherapy shortly afterwards. In the mean time, Parker has raised no objection to this interview being published. Rather poignantly, it was conducted on the very morning that Hunter first consulted his GP about sharp pains in his stomach. Indeed, he was an hour late for our meeting, at the Syngenta Sports and Fitness Club in Huddersfield, because of his somewhat more important appointment with the doctor.

That he turned up at all is illustrative of the exceptionally decent fellow he is. Just as I arrived at the club, Parker phoned to say that Hunter would be late, and explained why. I suggested that he should not bother coming at all. "No, Paul knows that you've had a long journey and he doesn't want to let you down," was the reply. Of course, nobody suspected cancer at the time. For Hunter when he did turn up - admittedly looking pretty wan and washed-out, but then professional snooker players generally do - the worst-case scenario was appendicitis.

"I said to the doctor that it really hurts when I breathe in," he told me. "He felt around on the side that hurts and said, 'That's your appendix'.

"We shall see. I've heard that if you do have them out you're not allowed to drive for six weeks. That's no good for me. I have to drive out here every day to practise."

The Syngenta, which used to be the nearby ICI factory's social club, is about six miles from Hunter's home on the western outskirts of Leeds. On the weekday morning that I was there, play was unfolding on four or five snooker tables, although it was a safe bet that nobody else had arrived in a BMW X3 from an unmortgaged detached house with a pool table and a bar set up in the garage.

Hunter enjoys the trappings that go with being the fourth-best snooker player in the world, yet is the first to admit that you can take the boy out of the Leeds council estate, but not the Leeds council estate out of the boy. He used to practise at Guiseley Conservative Club. But it did not have the beery atmosphere he likes, or enough of the types of men who fill the Syngenta: companionable, mostly unemployed blokes who have never treated him differently just because he is a star, and will not be starting now just because he has cancer.

Nor, I imagine, has his yearning to win at the Crucible diminished because he has a tougher battle on his hands. "I've always dreamt of winning the World Championship," he said. "That's all I really want to do in snooker. I don't care if I win nothing else, or drop out of the top 64, it's that tournament I want. I remember watching it when as I was a kid, watching [Jimmy] White getting beat in the final all the time. I looked at that trophy and thought, 'I want that one day'. That's why I get out of bed and come down here.

"From the start of the year, really, Sheffield's been in the back of my head. I so look forward to it. There's so much history there, and for me it's on the doorstep. They're talking about moving it next year. I hope they don't. I'll have to win it in case it gets moved."

It is worth emphasising again that Hunter said all this several weeks before last Wednesday's diagnosis, and since then I have not been able to - nor would I have wanted to - penetrate the bosom of his mercifully warm and loving family, where he is getting all the support he needs. A different kind of support will be forthcoming at the Crucible, if he plays there as he intends. Heaven knows what kind of response he will receive when he walks out to contest his first-round match; he always gets a loud welcome anyway at the Crucible, on account of being not only a son of Yorkshire but also a notably pretty son of Yorkshire.

When I asked him about the fan letters he gets, he laughed. "I know what you're after, stories about G-strings and that. I do get some interesting offers. And they always say they're from my No 1 fan. It's nice, though. And I reply to every single one of them. I don't know whether the other lads do that; I can't see it, to be honest. There's a few women who've followed me for five or six years now. They're always at the tournaments, and I sometimes wish that they could be a bit better looking, but they're really nice people." A pause. "Anyway, I'm taken."

And how. Everyone who follows snooker, and quite a few who do not, knows about Hunter's love-making sessions with his wife Lindsey in their hotel room during breaks in the finals of the 2001, 2002 and 2004 Masters, which gave him whatever impetus he needed to go on and win.

No, he said, he did not mind me bringing the story up for the millionth time, not one bit. "It will never leave me, but it's a nice thing to talk about. I didn't plan on making it public at all, but after I won it the first time, I've gone in to the press, and someone said, 'You were 6-2 down, how do you explain your comeback?' And I said, 'I don't know, my girlfriend's here, if you know what I mean.' That's when all the snooker press went to the back of the room, and all the national newspapers came to the front, and said, 'Tell us more'. The next morning it was all over the papers, even on breakfast telly.

"I enjoyed all the fuss, to be honest. And we did it the next two times. The year after I was 5-0 down and came back to win 10-9, and last year against Ronnie [O'Sullivan] I was 6-1 and 7-2 down and still won. In the breaks, we did exactly the same. Well, different positions, like. I can't explain why it helped. I suppose it relaxed me, made me feel happy about myself. You've still got to get out there and pot the balls, though. I did take her to Malta a few months ago and it didn't work there."

Hunter's seemingly unreconstructed attitude to women - "taking" his wife to Malta, expressing regret that his most devoted fans are not better looking - might gnaw at the sensibilities of some readers of The Independent. But he was so engaging, so disarmingly candid, that not only did I laugh with him, I fleetingly became the man from The Sun rather than the man from The Indy: a friend of mine had always fantasised about having sex on a snooker table, I said. Was that an area he had explored?

"Not on a snooker table," he said. "On my pool table at home, though."

Enough sex. Let's move on to drugs. Hunter burst spectacularly into snooker's consciousness seven years ago, not only by beating John Higgins to win the Regal Welsh Open but also by testing positive, on the same night, for cannabis. But the drugs test had been conducted at a previous event and so he got to keep his £60,000 cheque. Not that he kept it for long. To paraphrase the old George Best joke, he spent most of his money on clubbing and boozing, but just frittered the rest away.

More worryingly, he started frittering away his talent. "In matches I used to sit there actually wanting the other guy to clear the table, because I was shaking so much I didn't want to get out of my chair. I was going out all the time, drinking and partying, and my dad used to have to knock me up before matches because I was still drunk. He even had to break the bedroom door down once.

"I actually won 37 out of my first 38 matches, but I hardly remember any of them. But I would never change all that, because at the time I enjoyed it. I'm half-Polish so I love my vodka, and on nights out I'd drink nearly a bottle, easy. Vodka and orange, that was my drink. And that went on for two years, until my manager Brandon, and my mum and dad, sat me down and said, 'What's the point of this?'"

His role model in snooker was Jimmy White, which may or may not have been a good thing. "As for the greatest player ever to play the game, it has to be [Stephen] Hendry. Nobody better ever picked up a piece of wood. If [Steve] Davis had played Hendry when they were both at their best, Hendry would win. If it was between Hendry and Ronnie at their best, I'd still fancy Hendry."

"Ronnie the Rocket", is as much of an enigma to Hunter as to everyone else. "We used to be good friends but we don't really speak any more. That's him, though, not me. For the past two years he's kept himself to himself. I don't know if he's gone a bit weird or what. One day he will say hello, the next day he won't look twice at you. I don't understand that. There's no harm in sitting down and having a chat. Maybe it's to do with his dad being inside [prison]. I haven't read his book but my wife has. He's all over the place, mentally like. But he's great for the game."

As, in a different way, is Hunter. Which was doubtless why he was chosen to participate in the BBC's revived version of Superstars. In the original Superstars, I remember, snooker's representative was Tony Knowles.

Every snooker generation has a token pin-up, with the accompanying misconception that he might also be a bit of an athlete. This time it is Hunter. "I said no to Superstars three times but they kept saying, 'Come on, it'll be really good exposure'," he recalls. "I heard that it used to be the in-programme, like years and years ago."

Thanks, I said. As someone who remembered it well, maybe he could help me with my Zimmer frame on the way out. He laughed. "Didn't Kevin Keegan once come off his bike or something?

"Anyway, I did it, and there were 39 athletes and me. There was only me who smoked, only me who drank. The bike ride was a nightmare, 800 metres uphill.

"Obviously I came last, and when I got off my bike, I tried to walk but couldn't. I just fell on the floor and someone came over and gave me a San Miguel and put a fag in my mouth. I remember [the runner] Jamie Baulch saying to me one morning, 'I shouldn't have had that glass of wine' last night, and I'm thinking, 'Jesus, I shouldn't have had them three jugs of sangria'.

"I had to race against him in the 800m and he's like, 'I'm not looking forward to this'. I'm thinking, 'You're a bloody runner, aren't you? I never even run to the end of my driveway'."

Both laughing, we moved across to Hunter's table, the table the Syngenta keeps especially for him. He set up various practice shots and on his own turf, so to speak, he suddenly looked like a man who could do anything. But he had not won since November and was intent on finding some form for Sheffield.

"My potting and break-building is good, but I could maybe tighten up on safety," he said. "You can't really practise safety shots, though. I could definitely concentrate a bit better. A couple of years ago I was focused only on the match. Now I even start thinking about what I'm going to eat later. But that's because I'm sat in the chair a bit more often and my mind tends to wander."

There is now an unenviably dark place for it to wander to. But in a strange way his illness might help him to focus more, not less. Whatever, if he does somehow win the World Championship, he will be responsible for his beloved Crucible losing its roof.