The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
By the 2002/03 snooker season, there were signs that the sport’s global appeal was waning and it was moving head first into a crisis.
Political turmoil behind the scenes was rampant, and the impending UK sponsorship ban on tobacco was set to hit finances hard.
These days, snooker is known to rely heavily on the gambling industry, but prior to that it was all about tobacco.
Embassy sponsored the World Championship, Benson & Hedges supported the Masters, while several other brands like Regal were common backers as well.
Snooker found itself in an unusual situation of avoiding the blanket sports ban for a few years, but by 2005 its lengthy marriage with the tobacco industry would be up in smoke once and for all.
Even prior to that, it was clear that the sport was heading in the wrong direction.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the players regularly travelled around the world to compete in faraway places like Australia, Canada, Thailand, China, and mainland Europe.
Yet, in the 2002/03 snooker season every single event on the calendar was staged either in the UK or Ireland.
That included the European Open, which in the past had been hosted in France, Netherlands, Belgium, and Malta, but in 2003 moved to the exotic location of Torquay.
Ronnie O’Sullivan triumphed with a 9-6 victory over Stephen Hendry in the final.
A couple of weeks later, the world number one beat another Scottish rival, John Higgins, to claim the Irish Masters.
For the first time in its 25-year history, the Irish Masters was awarded ranking event status, and the crowd at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin was provided with a treat, as O’Sullivan denied Higgins in a high-scoring title decider 10-9.
The pair had traded blows from start to finish, boasting four century breaks and 13 additional runs above 50 between them.
While there was strife off the table, on it the likes of O’Sullivan and HIggins were at the forefront of an era that arguably produced the highest standard ever.
The top ten in the world rankings at the time were Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Williams, Peter Ebdon, John Higgins, Ken Doherty, Stephen Hendry, Stephen Lee, Matthew Stevens, Paul Hunter, and Jimmy White.
Between them, they would dominate most tournaments and it was a surprise when the winner didn’t come from this group.
Then, that is perhaps what made Chris Small’s victory in the 2002/03 season-opening LG Cup so unexpected.
The Scottish qualifier was a 150/1 outsider, but he overcame both Higgins and O’Sullivan en route to the final, where he outplayed countryman Alan McManus to lift his sole ranking title.
Small’s victory was a popular one, not least because he suffered from a severe spine condition that ultimately forced him into an early retirement just three years later.
Towards the end of the term, David Gray also sprung an upset by pipping a very young Mark Selby to glory in the Scottish Open in Edinburgh.
Aside from that, however, it was business as usual in terms of who the silverware was handed out to at the bigger events.
Hendry secured his 34th ranking success with victory in the Welsh Open while Hunter was on top of the pile in the British Open shortly before Christmas.
The player of the 2002/03 snooker season, though, was unquestionably Williams, who lost to Hendry on home turf and again to Marco Fu in the Premier League final, but was at his devastating best when it mattered most.
In the big three BBC tournaments, Williams orchestrated a clean sweep and a perfect Triple Crown campaign that was only ever completed before by Hendry and Steve Davis.
A lot of it boiled down to titanic head-to-head battles with Irishman Ken Doherty, with the pair engaging in incredible duels to decide the outcome of both the UK and World Championships.
Indeed, if Hendry hadn’t spoiled the party in London, beating the Irishman in the last four of the Masters, Williams and Doherty could have faced each other in all three Triple Crown finals.
As it was, Williams beat Hendry in a Masters final for the second time a couple of months after he had denied Doherty in a 10-9 thriller to lift the UK crown.
However, the best was to come in Sheffield when Williams and Doherty clashed again with the most prestigious title on the line.
The latter had been the player of the 2003 World Championship, requiring all but four frames to reach the last two.
A 10-9 victory over Shaun Murphy was followed by a 13-12 defeat of Graeme Dott in the last 16.
Doherty duly led John Higgins 10-0 in the quarter-finals, but somehow proceeded to lose the next seven and only scrambled home a 13-8 victor.
The roller coaster continued in the semi-finals, with the 1997 world champion recovering a 15-9 deficit to Hunter to eventually prevail by a single frame yet again.
Hunter’s sole appearance at the single table set-up, and his gracious acceptance of what was a bitter defeat, would of course become that bit more poignant only a few years after.
Meanwhile, it appeared as though all of the exploits had finally caught up with Doherty, who languished 10-2 behind Williams at the beginning of their final at the Crucible.
Yet, by that point he knew anything was possible and a remarkable comeback saw him pull his way back to 11-11.
From there, it was to and fro, but in similar fashion to three years earlier Williams managed to hold his nerve just when he needed to the most.
The Welshman won the last two frames for an incredible 18-16 triumph, in doing so recovering the world number one spot in the rankings list.
By matching Davis and Hendry’s feats of capturing all three Triple Crown titles in the same campaign, Williams became only the third player in history to achieve the hat-trick – and it hasn’t been repeated since.
Throughout the 2002/03 snooker season, the game’s stars were still serving the public well with fantastic snooker on the baize.
But only months later, the leadership would change hands again and the introduction of the Rodney Walker era would lead to even more trying times.