THE faith two local businessmen had in the snooker talent of Paul Hunter when he was a mere rookie taking time out from school to practice paid off at the weekend when the 19 year-old was a surprise winner of the Regal Welsh Open in Newport.

The Moortown-based youngster was offered sponsorship by John Smith and Tony Fowles who until recently owned Yeadon's Manor Health and Fitness Club which is now known as Dragons.

As a 13 year-old sachoolboy Hunter was taken under the wing of the Manor where he used to practice with Wharfedale's rising stars such as Jon Knipe and more latterley former world champion Joe Johnson.

Hunter first created a ripple in the Welsh Open when he beat Steve Davis. He then triumphed over World No 8 Nigel Bond and Alan McManus to reach a semi-final against Peter Ebdon.

He was despatched 6-1 as Hunter proved that he had finally arrived in the elite group of top snooker players.

This put him into the final against John Higgins and Hunter defeated the world No 2 9-5 in a match that started out as a classic.

Higgins won the first frame 87-40 with a break of 87. Hunter hit back to take the second 131-1 with a break of 127.

Higgins took the third 81-44 but then sat back as Hunter made a break of 116 to square things at 2-2 without Higgins scoring in the frame.

Higgins took the next two frames 82-0 and 60-26 to lead 4-2 and the last frame of this session was

obviously going to be a vital one.

In a somewhat safety conscious frame both players had chances but it was Hunter who took the frame 76-21 to leave himself trailing 4-3 with the night session to come.

Hunter strolled through the first frame of the evening winning 61-8 to square the match and Higgins looked rattled at this stage although he did take the ninth frame 69-10 to lead 5-4.

It was however the last frame Higgins was to win as Hunter took the next two frames 64-20 and 73-34 to leave himself 6-5 up at the interval and in the lead for the first time.

Any thoughts that Hunter may be nervous on his biggest stage yet were soon dispelled as he romped through the next three frames 68-41, 74-8 and 108-0 with a 100 break to take the match 9-5.

The win saw Paul leap 17 places up the Embassy World rankings and has given him a great chance of breaking into the top 16 for next season.

As well as his £60,000 cheque for winning the Welsh Open Paul is also to receive £500 and a Kieninger brass skeleton triple chime clock valued at over £800 at the next world ranking tournament - the Scottish Open in Aberdeen from February 12 to 22.

Hunter started the year's first ranking tournament as an 80-1 outsider but soon ripped up the form book to claim the £60,000 first prize.

After his dream win Hunter said: 'My Dad always said I would have my day but I did not think it would happen so soon in my career.'

His Dad Alan came in for praise from former Wharfedale Snooker Association secretary Dave Richardson.

Dave said : 'I am delighted for Alan Hunter. He has shown great dedication in getting his son where he is. I am also delighted for John Smith and Tony Fowles who backed Paul from a very early age when some thought it was folly.'

It was Dave Richardson who helped clear the way for young Hunter to get the opposition he needed early in his career. Dave helped unblock the way for juniors playing in senior competition in local leagues, in the Yorkshire Inter-District League and at County representative level and thus young Paul was able to play a higher calibre of opponent which helped to improve his game.

Paul represented Wharfedale in their Inter-District matches and all the snooker pundits at the Manor knew that he would one day reach the top of the tree but probably did not think it would be quite so quickly.'

Dave Richardson was one of those who pointed Paul out at an early stage as one who would go on to take some of the game's top honours and he has been proved right.

He said: 'I was excited with and delighted at Paul's success but I was not surpirsed. It was inevitable that it would happen one day. What he has to do now though is keep his feet on the ground and not become a one competition wonder.'

Paul's success has seen him rise to No 18 in the world rankings but this ranking depends on what happens next.

He is still in the Scottish Open and has to overcome Mark King at Telford in March to reach the Crucible in Sheffield for a debut in the world championships in only his third year as a professional.

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