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THE TRAGIC death of Paul Hunter has devastated not only the snooker community but also the hearts of people all round the world. Aged just 27, he has left behind him a legacy that can never be filled.

Nicknamed the ‘Beckham of the Baize’ because of his dazzling looks, his stunning wife and his ambition to be the best, Paul will forever be remembered as one of the finest snooker players ever to grace the the green baize.

Born in Leeds, he first potted a ball at the tender age of seven and was a revelation ever since.

The likeable potter turned professional at 16 and most notably burst onto the big stage back in 1998 when he won the Welsh Open at just 19, becoming only the second youngest player ever to win a major event.

This was just the beginning for a player who was to become something very special.

Success continued for Paul in the shape of his first Masters title in 2001 – a tournament he seemed to fall in love with.

Paul famously revealed the reason behind his famous victory that year after admitting have result to ‘plan B’ with his then girlfriend Lyndsey during the mid- session interview. This justified his status as the pin-up boy of snooker.

He came back the following year to win the Masters title again which capped a fantastic season for Englishman after winning three major tournaments and by now he had firmly established himself as one of the finest snooker players on the circuit.

Anyone who wins back-to–back is a great player,” described former player now commentator Willie Thorne.

He told the BBC Sport: “Paul Hunter was a great player and I’m sure that he would have been a future world champion, without a doubt.”

As Paul’s world ranking grew so too did his reputation. As well as winning tournaments, Paul showed to the world that snooker wasn’t the only thing important to him as he married his beautiful girlfriend.

His next and what tragically proved to be his last tournament victory was the Masters title once more in 2004 as he became only the third player in snooker history to win the event three times.

He beat close friend and rival Ronnie O Sullivan 10-9 in what many would consider one of the greatest games in the history of the sport.

In March 2005 Paul was diagnosed with Cancer while as the peak of his game.

But showed bravery and pride by playing through the pain barrier, participating in the World Snooker Championships against all odds that same year.

Unfortunately he was knocked out at the first hurdle to Michael Holt, but his presence was miraculous.

In his final season, Paul slipped to 34th in the world rankings and his game was clearly affected by his illness.

Off the table he battled on and was granted what some would call a miracle when his wife gave birth to their daughter Evie Rose.

Paul sadly passed away from the world he dearly loved on October 19 2006 just a couple of days short of his 28th birthday.

He has left behind him a legacy which no player or person could fill. Snooker has been robbed of a potential world number one.

Former World Champion, Ken Doherty, a close friend of Paul, passionately described his close friend in no better way: “We’ve lost a great character, champion and a great friend.

“It’s a shocking loss. He had everything, the world at his feet and it’s such as shame. He was one of our characters and a fantastic player.”

 

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JUDD Trump is predicting a bright future for his friend Michael Wasley after the world number 73 pulled off one of the biggest shocks at the Crucible in recent years.

Qualifier Wasley, who won for matches to qualify for the Dafabet World Championships, defeated in-form Ding Junhui 10-9 late on Monday night.

Chinese sensation Ding was one of the favourites to win his first world title heading into the tournament having already won five ranking events this season.

But Wasley, from Gloucestershire, produced the performance of his career to progress into the last 16 where he will meet Dominic Dale on Saturday evening.

Trump, who is also 24 and saw off Tom Ford 10-8 to progress to the next round, grew up with Wasley and believes his shock win can inspire a new generation of players to come through the ranks.

It’s good to see another player my age starting to come through,” said Trump.

I watched a bit of his match. It was good to watch and really good for him.

We’re the same age so I played in all of the junior tournaments with him.

This is only his second year on the tour and getting into the last 16 of the World Championships at that stage is something that I didn’t do so hopefully he’s got a big future in the game.

His next match will be harder because he’s coming in off the back of an excellent win – probably the biggest biggest shock in five years beating Ding who has won so many tournaments this year.

But I think if he can win the next game he could be a dangerous opponent because his performance against Ding would have frightened a few players I think.”

Despite progressing through to the last 16 himself, Trump was admittedly disappointed with his own performance.

But the 2011 finalist is drawing on the positives and is pleased not to have hit anywhere near top form ahead of his match against Ryan Day on Saturday.

Trump added: “But there’s probably going to be guys who play well in this tournament and lose so for me to play badly and still win is very pleasing.

In a way I’m quite happy I didn’t play quite well in my first game.

I’ve taught myself to be patient and not really worry about my performance too much because there has been times this year where I’ve played really well and lost.

At the end of the day that’s not important. There’s going to be people who flick on the TV on Saturday and see I’m still in the tournament so for that game has gone now.

It’s irrelevant. I’ve got four more matches to win the Championship. There’ still a long way to go and no player wants to be playing their best stuff in the first and second round.”

In the same way George Best entertained millions with his countless tricks and creativity, Alex Higgins stunned fans with unthinkable shots and an uncontrollable confidence which re-invented how snooker is played in this day in age.

Both born in Belfast during the 1940’s, both players shared a natural flair for their respective sports which saw them rise to the top, but unfortunately both men battled alcoholism which inevitably helped them sink back down to new lows. George Best passed away aged 59, Alex Higgins was 61.

Best knew how to charm the ladies, as did Higgins, but for the two natural born entertainers, their one demon and lifelong battle wasn’t against a superior opponent, nor was it the sport that made them such house-hold names, it was in fact alcohol. 

A thorn for both which proved to be a slippery slope and ultimately proved to be their downfall.

In many ways, Higgins came into this life with nothing. As a child growing up in a deprived area of Belfast, betting in snooker halls and drinking in bars, to his final days in a deprived area of Belfast, betting in snooker halls and drinking in bars.

When you put it like that, you question his achievements in the sport, but one thing that can’t be questioned is his legacy.

Born in Belfast on the 18th March 1949, Higgins grew to become one of the greatest snooker players of all time.

His destiny started at the tender age of 11, as a young, cheeky boy who used to skip school and watch local snooker players in the Jampot Club, South Belfast. Here he learnt how to play the game and soon enough he was beating his seniors.

As his passion for the sport grew, so too did his skill and the youngster was starting to build a small reputation around the area, but he always had a soft spot for horse racing, so much so that he moved to England to become a jockey.

This move however didn’t last long. Whilst away, he demonstrated the type of behaviour which at times overshadowed his career. A comination of drinking and fighting forced Higgins back home and this was when his career on the green baize took off.

At 16-years of age, the Northern Irishman compiled his first maximum break and one year later he was the best amateur player in the whole of Ireland having won both the All-Ireland and Northern Ireland Amateur Snooker Championships.

His reputation was on the rise and he famously compared himself to Alexander the Great. People were starting to take note of this young, confident lad from Belfast and his popularity rose to new heights when he won the 1972 Snooker World Championships.

Being crowned the youngest ever Champion earned the Belfast boy £480, but Higgins was making money performing exhibitions across the country, but as his popularity spiralled, so to at times did his behaviour.

He was a heavy drinker and smoked dozens of cigarettes during matches, both habits would come back to haunt him later in life and like George Best he had three agenda’s, gambling, drinking and women.

The Alex Higgins fan-base was getting bigger and bigger. The public enjoyed his unpredictability, shot choice and tricks shots, but he was famed for his speed around the table and this natural ability led to him being nicknamed Alex ‘the hurricane’ Higgins.

“To people in the game he was a constant source of argument, he was a rebel,” described six-time World Snooker Champion Steve Davies. 

“But to the wider public he was a breath of fresh air that drew them in to the game. He was an inspiration to my generation to take the game up. I do not think his contribution to snooker can be underestimated. He was quite a fierce competitor; he lived and breathed the game, very much a fighter on the table.”

During the 80’s Higgins developed a strong friendship with another one of snookers more entertaining stars.

Jimmy White shared all the characteristics as Alex, he was fast, entertaining and the crowd loved him, they were a snooker match made in heaven. They seemed to produce their best snooker together and in their 1982 World Championship semi-final, Higgins produced what many, myself included, would regard as the greatest break ever made, a 69 clearance in a must win frame.

It came as quite a surprise to many that it took Higgins ten years before he won his second, much anticipated World Championships title, although he was a beaten finalist in 1976 and 1980.

Up against his old rival Ray Reardon, ‘The Hurricane’ completed his honour with a stunning total clearance of 135, which cued the unforgettable tears with his then wife and daughter.

His life had changed once more, but just as he was flying high one year later he hit a new low when his wife left him and the following year Higgins attempted to commit suicide.

To many, the collapse of second marriage was the start of the end of his downturn.

During the prestigious UK Championships in 1986, Higgins head butted an official for requesting he take a random drugs test. His punishment was a £12,000 fine and a five-tournament ban, which started to push Higgins down the world rankings.

His gambling addiction came into the public spotlight and this combined with his constant drinking binges and money problems sent his career as a snooker player into turmoil.

In 1990, eight years after winning the title in such glamorous style, Higgins was removed by Dennis Taylor in only the second round, a result which sparked death threat from Higgins towards his Catholic rival.

This was the end of his time on the professional snooker circuit. The constant drinking and smoking finally had caught up with Alex in 1997 as he was diagnosed with throat cancer, a disease which accumulated Higgins to lose his teeth, his health, but never his love for snooker.

He continued to hustle in clubs across Belfast and every now and then would appear at an exhibition match. It’s unbelievable to think that Higgins himself felt he still had the game to take on the current players in the top 32 world rankings.

Some would say he should have won more world titles than he actually achieved, but many say that about Ronnie O Sullivan, who idolised Higgins from the age of six and is the one player who has come close to playing in the same, fluent and natural style as the Belfast player.

He told World Snooker, “Alex Higgins was one of the real inspirations behind me getting into snooker. He is a true legend and should be forever remembered as being the finest ever snooker player.”

Although I am too young to have witnessed Higgins’ snooker talent, in fact I wasn’t even born when he won his second world title in 1982, it’s difficult for even someone as young as myself to think of the sport without him ever existing.

His rivalry with Steve Davies in the 80’s helped raised the sport to all time high. His hugely entertaining style of play has never been matched to this day and his unpredictable personality made him of the sport’s greatest ever characters.

Many people down the years had wanted to shut Higgins up, players and professionals alike, and in a way in his final few days they got their wish.

The throat cancer, which he had suffered for ten years, had taken its toll and the ‘people’s champion’ was in a slow decline, demonstrated by his inability to talk in his final weeks.

Ultimately, it was cancer and only cancer that could slow the hurricane down.

Alex Higgins, 18/3/1949 – 24/7/2010

Young Chinese sensation Zhang Anda may have lost in the first round of the 2010 World Snooker Championships, but the debutant showed the Crucible audience a sign of things to come in his defeat to seven-time World Champion Stephen Hendry.

The 18-year-old showed no signs of the now mythical ‘crucible pressure’ as he came from 4-0 down to come within one frame of defeating the great Steven Hendry in front of millions of Chinese fans watching the latest import back home.

Hendry was made to produce the same kind of form that brought the Scott seven World Championship titles taking the final three frames of the match to seal a hard fought victory and he had some kind words to say after the match about his spirited opponent.

He told World Snooker, “I thought Zhang was phenomenal, he showed no nerves. Obviously he had nothing to lose and you can raise your game, but by the same token he could have froze out there. Yesterday I played some of my best safety, and he just kept knocking in balls from tight under the baulk rail.

At 9-7 down I had my retirement speech ready for the press. I just felt that this sums it all up, at the end of a poor season, losing in the first round at the Crucible. I was sat in my chair thinking that’s what I used to do when I was eighteen. Amongst the balls he never looked like missing.”

Zhang himself didn’t seem too downhearted with his final-frame defeat and was indeed delighted with his debut performance at the Crucible, he was however honoured to be playing against his experienced opponent.

“I was very pleased with my performance throughout the match. I learned so much from the game, I liked the atmosphere but was so focused on the match I didn’t notice the pressure. It was an honour to play Stephen as he is the biggest name in snooker.”

To come from behind, show no pressure and almost defeat the sports greatest ever player on his first appearance at the Crucible is a huge achievement. If the 18year-old continues to keep that sort of standard against the worlds top 16, he himself could well find himself one of the elite in the not so distant future.