Byline: Phil Yates
PAUL HUNTER produced a record-breaking burst of scoring to transform probable defeat into a glorious 10-9 victory over Fergal O'Brien in an extraordinary climax to the Benson and Hedges Masters at Wembley Conference Centre last night. With a sustained spell of excellence, the Yorkshireman charged to the most prestigious invitation title snooker has to offer.
Having been tight, edgy and appreciably below his best in the early stages, Hunter displayed impeccable timing by striking a rich vein of form when it mattered most. From 7-4 adrift, he fluently constructed breaks of 129, 101, 75, 132 and 136 to lift only the second trophy of his six-year professional career. That latter effort, a total clearance smoothly woven together considering the importance of the occasion and the huge financial rewards on offer, secured Hunter a half share of the event's Pounds 20,000 highest break award along with Jimmy White.
Hunter's Pounds 175,000 first prize is almost treble his previous biggest payday - the Pounds 60,000 he received when winning the Regal Welsh Open as a 19-year-old in 1998.
O'Brien, the world No9, is not blessed with an abundance of natural ability. He makes the most of what he has got, though, and in 1999 graduated from journeyman to tournament winner by triumphing at the British Open in Plymouth. Even so, few expected the Dubliner to be a serious contender at the Masters, an event that follows the formbook.
When O'Brien battled for five hours, well past midnight, to beat Dave Harold 6-4 in a gruelling semi-final on Saturday, many thought that tiredness would handicap his chances of going the distance. Yet, for someone who often practises for ten hours a day, such a marathon was water off a duck's back.
Hunter, who unexpectedly beat Stephen Hendry 6-4 in the other semi-final, was considered a warm favourite but, when the match got under way, he committed one mistake after another. The fourth frame was a microcosm of a strange session in which O'Brien dominated without being at his best. Leading by 48, Hunter was in control but, inexplicably, he jawed a simple red. O'Brien stepped in with a clearance of 80 to lead 3-1 and gradually pulled away.
Hunter could not complain of a lack of chances. In the sixth frame he fluked the yellow while escaping out of a troublesome snooker, but overcut a relatively straightforward green and O'Brien pounced yet again for 5-1.
The closing frame of the afternoon, a 38-minute affair, saw Hunter lay the two snookers that he required, but O'Brien eventually potted the yellow to seal it.
On the resumption, Hunter threatened to turn the tide by stealing the ninth frame on the black with a clearance of 52 and he should have added the next as well. However, O'Brien laid a telling snooker on the yellow and cleared the colours to record a valuable black-ball success of his own.
That earned O'Brien a healthy 7-3 advantage but the pivotal moment arrived when, with the eleventh frame at his mercy, he missed an elementary last red using the rest. Hunter scrambled through on the pink before embarking on an inspired sequence of break building.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2001
Hunter managed to keep his composure and seize an ulikely 10-9 victory over O'Brien in the Benson and Hedges Masters at Wembley