The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
At the beginning of the 2006/07 snooker season, a decision was made to freeze Paul Hunter’s official world ranking.
After more than a year of painfully dealing with his rare form of cancer, the affable three-time Masters champion had dropped from a career-high of number four to the world number 34.
Hunter had bravely played on throughout the previous term, but he managed only one match victory in that spell.
At the World Championship in April, Hunter faced up-and-coming talent Neil Robertson in the opening round and lost 10-5 in what proved to be his last competitive match.
It was hoped that by giving the Leeds man the opportunity to recover without the stress of defending his position on the circuit, his health might improve.
But unfortunately it didn’t, and on the evening of October 9th in 2006 the then 27 year-old sadly passed away.
Hunter was survived by his wife Lyndsey and daughter Evie Rose, and much of the snooker world mourned their loss alongside them.
Matthew Stevens, one of Hunter’s best friends on the tour, was a paulbearer at a funeral that was also attended by the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan and Jimmy White.
There were immediate calls for the Masters trophy to be renamed in his honour, but such was the ineptitude of the leadership within the sport at the time that those reasonable suggestions fell on deaf ears.
It wasn’t until ten years later that the famous Waterford Crystal piece, which Hunter was the first to raise when he won the title for a third time in 2004, was attributed his name.
Back then, a small event in Furth, Germany instead took the steps to rebrand its tournament as the Paul Hunter Classic.
Originally a pro-am that eventually grew to join the PTC Series and then become a full ranking event, the event was won by Hunter in its inaugural staging just two years before his death.
With one of the sport’s brightest young stars gone – not to mention one of its poster boys who could help bring the game to a wider audience – snooker was in desperate need of another flag-bearer.
In China’s Ding Junhui, there was already one in the making and the 2006/07 snooker season began with the teenager again in the limelight.
The 19 year-old had already beaten legends Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis to respectively triumph in the China Open and UK Championship in 2005.
Ronnie O’Sullivan was the next target, and at the campaign-opening Northern Ireland Trophy Ding once more underlined his enormous credentials with a 9-6 defeat of the “Rocket” in the final.
Ding appeared unflappable and often emotionless, which at the time made it difficult for him to become endeared by fans in the UK, Ireland, and across Europe.
However, what transpired to happen when the youngster next met O’Sullivan in an important final will go down as one of snooker’s most shameful moments.
Having received a wildcard to compete in the prestigious Masters invitational in January, Ding coasted in the early rounds.
In his wildcard match against Anthony Hamilton, the player dubbed the “Chinese Sensation” became the youngest player to compile a maximum 147 break live on television – and only the second to do so in Masters history.
Superb victories over recent UK champion Peter Ebdon, Stephen Lee, and Stephen Hendry subsequently sent him through to the final to face off against O’Sullivan.
But this time the latter was firmly on home soil and the boisterous London crowd certainly made it clear who they wanted to win.
As O’Sullivan began to dominate in what was his fourth Masters final in a row, the aura of invincibility that Ding had exuded during the few important matches he had experienced by that stage began to crumble.
Such was his disillusionment with what was going on, Ding thought the match was over when O’Sullivan reached nine frames and it needed an embrace from the Englishman to convince a tearful Ding to continue.
The crowd, which normally creates a spine-tingling atmosphere in the capital city, descended into farce and its collective aggression against Ding materialised into a brutish form of bullying.
O’Sullivan won 10-3 and a subsequent 10-2 hammering in Ding’s first ever World Championship match at the Crucible a few months later provided the Chinese with his first – and arguably lasting – sporting scars to recover from.
In O’Sullivan’s second-round tie in Sheffield, meanwhile, he faced another emerging star in Australian Neil Robertson.
Like Ding, the flamboyant Melbourne man had begun to make waves by capturing a brace of ranking titles during the 2006/07 snooker season.
In a revamped Grand Prix that somewhat oddly incorporated a round-robin format in the early stages, Robertson emerged with a maiden crown at Jamie Cope’s expense in the final.
Then after the New Year, the “Thunder from Down Under” added another trophy to his cabinet with a dramatic 9-8 success over Andrew Higginson in the Welsh Open title decider.
At the Crucible, he gave O’Sullivan a good run for his money in the last 16 but ended up a 13-10 loser.
O’Sullivan was again the tournament favourite, and after negotiating tough initial tests many expected him to push on at the 2007 World Championship.
But familiar foe John Higgins halted his progress in the last eight to reach the single table set-up for the first time in six years.
In fact, the Scot’s record of just one world title at that point of his career was a surprise for a player of his calibre.
It looked as though he was going to fall short again when he trailed Stephen Maguire 15-13, but he won the last four frames of their semi-final bout to end one of the Glaswegian’s biggest opportunities of becoming a world champion.
The other semi-final featured Shaun Murphy, who had won the Malta Cup in February, and another member from the emerging crop of fresh contenders in Mark Selby.
A qualifier that year, the “Jester” provided early signs of what would become his trademark brinkmanship act when he fought back from two frames down with three to play to deny Murphy in a last-four decider.
In the final, though, Selby came up against a formidable opponent who was not to be denied a deserved second world crown, with Higgins running out an 18-13 winner.
Meanwhile, countryman Graeme Dott, who had triumphed in the China Open just before the action in Sheffield began, succumbed to the inevitable “Curse of the Crucible” with defeat to Ian McCulloch in the first round.
The other two events of note during the 2006/07 snooker season were both won by O’Sullivan, who at times throughout the term faced his inner demons and caused a media frenzy by walking out of his quarter-final tie with Stephen Hendry at the UK Championship.
A 7-0 hiding of Jimmy White provided him with a fifth Premier League success of the decade so far, though – and there was plenty more to come in that competition.
The Englishman also won a shambolic rehash of the Irish Masters, which had been dropped from the calendar a year before and hasn’t been seen again since.
O’Sullivan’s 147 break in the quarter-finals was supposed to be rewarded with a car worth €20,000, but the Irish promoters at the last minute decided to withdraw the prize.
This kind of shambolic organisation was indicative of the problems the sport faced during that period, and towards the end of the decade it was only going to get worse.
Featured photo credit: WST