(5) DAVIS STREAKS TO SURPRISE VICTORY (1997)
The Masters was, by Steve Davis’s very high standards, never one of his happiest tournaments. It didn’t help that, as a Londoner on home soil, he often lacked support for the unforgivable sin of being too successful.
However, by 1997 he appeared to be in decline and was settling into life as one of snooker’s elder statesmen. And with the wins drying up, people started to like him again.
Heading into the ’97 Masters Davis had hardly practised after being laid low with a heavy cold and had few expectations. Hard fought wins over Alan McManus and Peter Ebdon put him through to a semi-final against Ken Doherty, whom he defeated 6-1 to suggest a return to winning ways was now distinctly possible.
But standing in his way was a 21 year-old who Davis had inspired as a boy. Ronnie O’Sullivan, clearly on his way up to the very top, had already won the 1995 Masters and was favourite to prevail against a player apparently on the long slide down.
In the third frame, Lianne Crofts wrote herself into snooker’s history books by taking her clothes off and becoming the first streaker to interrupt a televised match, causing O’Sullivan to mop the brow of referee John Street, taking charge of his last match.
It was O’Sullivan who streaked into an 8-4 lead, compiling three centuries in the process but, perhaps now expecting to win, did not fell Davis with the knock-out blow and the grand old man started to come back at him.
Davis recovered to 8-6 and then constructed the highest break of the tournament, 130, to demonstrate that he was now playing the kind of snooker necessary to pull off a great escape.
With much of the Wembley crowd now behind him, Davis hit the front at 9-8 before dominating frame 18 to complete a six frame winning streak and win his third masters title after victories in 1982 and 1988. But coming at a time in which trophies had been in short supply, it remains one of his most treasured achievements.
This season, Davis, now 56, won the World Seniors Championship, his first title on British soil since his Masters victory 17 years ago.
(4) THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1984)
In the boom years of the 1980s, Kirk Stevens was one of snooker’s pin-ups. Cutting a dash in his white suit, he looked like he could have been John Travolta’s stand-in for Saturday Night Fever.
But Stevens was also a terrific talent and when he played Jimmy White in the Masters semi-finals in 1984 it was a match much anticipated. It would become historic. That year the title would become White’s but it was Stevens who produced its moment of magic.
These two young, exciting players were good friends and played the game in a crowd-pleasing manner. It had already been entertaining fare when, in frame nine, with White leading 5-3, the Whirlwind had first dig at a red, missed, and Stevens got in. On 64, he took the cue ball in and out of baulk, missing everything to land nicely on the black, after which he held his nerve if not perfect position.
There was a scare when he cannoned into the pink off the last red, but he still landed on the yellow. He needed the rest to pot it, left the wrong angle for the green and had to take the cue ball around the angles for the brown. Even then, he finished wrong side to be ideal on the blue and ended up having to run the cue ball off the baulk cushion the length of the table to land on the black, a slight cut-back which Stevens sank for the 147.
This was the first – and only – frame Stevens’s fellow Canadian, the actor Donald Sutherland, had seen live. Not until Ding Junhui in 2007 did someone else match the feat by making a maximum in snooker’s leading invitation event.
Stevens lost the match 6-4 and as the 80s wore on, lost his way through an addiction to drugs. He dropped off the tour and was employed variously as car salesman and lumberjack before making a return to the professional circuit in 1998 but he was unable to stay on. He still plays in Canada.
(3) HUNTER COMPLETES HAT-TRICK (2004)
Paul Hunter followed up his ‘Plan B’ Masters success in 2001 with another dramatic victory the following year, rallying from 5-0 down to beat Mark Williams 10-9. In 2004, he was in the final again, against another crowd pleaser, Ronnie O’Sullivan.
This was a first – a final contested by two players wearing hairbands – and turned into a classic, although the early signs were that it would be one way traffic. It was never a plan of Hunter’s to start finals slowly and indeed he made two centuries in the first session but ended it in trouble, trailing 6-2.
The position looked even bleaker when O’Sullivan won the first frame of the final session but then came the trademark Hunter charge – breaks of 102, 82 and 109 helped him pull back to trail only 8-7.
It was a rare occasion for O’Sullivan: a major final in which he was not the overwhelming favourite with the audience. Hunter, especially at Wembley, had built a solid army of supporters through his on table performances and off table affability and they were ready to roar him to another improbable victory.
O’Sullivan won frame 16 with his highest break of the evening, just 41, but a fifth century, 110, gave Hunter new momentum and he ran out a 10-9 winner. Hunter thus completed a Masters hat-trick. He had won all three of his finals in deciding frame finishes after trailing heavily. In these three finals he compiled a total of nine century breaks.
Snooker during this period was not in the best of health, with tobacco sponsorship having been phased out and endless wrangling about the game’s administration. It was Hunter who did as much as anyone – and more than most – to keep the sport in the spotlight. Tragically, there were to be no more heroics. He died of cancer at the age of just 27 in 2006. Snooker and all those associated with it still miss him, especially when the Masters, on whose stage he shone so brightly, comes round again.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.
Tomorrow: the last two of the countdown revealed!