Stephen Hendry’s first round match against Joe Perry at this year’s Betfred.com World Championship will be his 86th at the Crucible, a record.
The stark facts are that it could also be his last.
Hendry needs a strong performance in Sheffield to keep his top 16 place. If he did drop out of the elite bracket he could of course regain it, but that’s if he has any appetite for playing in the qualifiers.
It wasn’t always like this. For a decade the Scot bestrode the world stage like the colossus he was.
You can teach technique and, to an extent, mental attitude but champions like Hendry are born and not made. There was some stubborn instinct inside him that made him determined to be the very best from a young age. Steve Davis was the same but I’m not sure anyone in the game has had it since.
By 1996 he was a six times winner of the World Championship and there were no obvious cracks appearing in his game. He won the UK Championship at the end of that year and was again a big favourite heading to Sheffield.
Hendry duly reached the final and there was no reason to suppose his era of dominance would come to an end. They always do, though, as John Major and the Tories found out a couple of days before Hendry and Ken Doherty contested the final.
Doherty was a fine player but also an intelligent one. He knew that if he played Hendry at his own game there would only be one winner and so did his best to keep him out, tie him up and generally stop him scoring.
And it worked. Hendry made five centuries and actually outpointed Doherty but lost the close frames and was beaten 18-12.
The question everyone wanted answered was whether this was a temporary blip or the signal that Hendry’s imperious reign at the top of the game was over. There were, after all, younger, hungry players of exceptional quality – John Higgins, Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan chief among them – who were winning titles.
The 1997/98 season was not Hendry’s best. Whispers began to grow in volume on the circuit that there may be problems, that he wasn’t the player he once was. They intensified at the Crucible when his old rival Jimmy White hammered him 10-4 in the first round.
I got the impression at that tournament that Hendry knew there was something wrong with his game but could not figure out what it was. I remember he and coach Frank Callan were relaxing in the pressroom between sessions of the White match, when Hendry trailed 8-1.
Frank turned to him and said, “the worst thing that can happen is that you can lose.” He meant it in a philosophical, worst-things-happen-at-sea kind of way but Hendry did lose, 10-4, and his manner afterwards suggested that this was indeed the worst thing that could happen to anyone.
The 1998/99 campaign began in a fashion that suggested not much had changed. Hendry’s 9-0 defeat by Marcus Campbell at the UK Championship made him face facts: something was wrong and had to be put right.
Through sheer hard work and strength of character he did put it right and would end the decade as a seven times world champion.
What was significant about his magnificent seventh is that nobody can say – at least with any credulity – that the draw opened up for him. His road to victory was possibly the toughest any champion has had to endure.
In the first round Hendry faced Paul Hunter, who had already won the Welsh Open and was very much a top player in the making.
Hendry didn’t score as heavily as usual and trailed 8-7 but managed to just raise his game enough to win 10-8.
Next up was James Wattana, not quite the player he was but still tough to beat. The Thai made two centuries and trailed just 9-7 going into the final session but did not win another frame.
The quarter-finals saw Hendry tackle Matthew Stevens, like Hunter a fast rising star who had already reached that season’s UK Championship final. Like Hunter and so many other younger players, Stevens had clearly modelled his game on Hendry’s. The challenge for the multi-world champion was to stay ahead of the pack, a little like running in front of a fast moving train.
But he did it. Hendry played a fine first session, winning it 6-2, and would secure a 13-5 victory.
And then in the semi-finals it was O’Sullivan, the flamboyant, precocious talent who was fast becoming a favourite with crowds in the wake of White’s decline.
Hendry led 6-2 but did not pot a ball in the next three frames and led only 9-7 going into Saturday.
The third session may well be the finest the Crucible has ever seen. Five centuries – three from Hendry, two from O’Sullivan, including a 134 to the pink – led Clive Everton to describe it as ‘snooker from the Gods.’
At 12-12 going into the final session Hendry needed one big effort. On a subconscious level he must have known that, with the younger talent around him, the chances to keep winning world titles were running out. That big effort was made. Hendry won five of the six remaining frames and reached the final with a 17-13 victory.
It didn’t get any easier. Mark Williams awaited, but Hendry took early control, winning the first four frames, led 10-6 after day one and won 18-11.
It was now beyond dispute: in the modern era he was the greatest. I interviewed him at the start of the following season and he said, “if I never win another title now it won’t matter.”
Of course, that very quickly went out of the window. Winning to Hendry was everything. Not dwelling on winning was one of the keys to his success.
Dwelling on losing may force him to think better of the whole thing and hang up his cue. I hope not because the standards Stephen Hendry set at the Crucible are still the ones everybody else in the game is aspiring to.