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.


Anonymous said...

there was trouble in the manage camp
around the time of the ken final.

thats what lost him that final

Anonymous said...

No contest - he is the greatest.

jamie brannon said...

Probably still my favourite snooker moment of all time.

It is a fair point you make about Davis and Hendry having that drive to dominate.

However, it may be possible that players have had it since but the game is now too difficult to dominate in the way Hendry did.

The standard in the nineties, particulary at the top end was just as high as today, but lower down things have got tougher and there are more players capable producing world-class performances.

TazMania said...

Hendry has never been the same since 1997. Because he acheived so much in his youth like alexander the great he 'died' off as quick as he captured all his titles in his 20's.


I hope ,David, That Hendry can remain in the top 16. Legend.

Anonymous said...

take nothing away from Ken Doherty but in 1997 Stephen Hendry was not up to for a battle.

Betty Logan said...

That's very dismissive 4.38. The most extraordinary stat of that final was that Hendry, despite being hammered, still outscored Doherty. Hendry was clearly not playing badly and the centuries were still flying from what I can recall. The reason Doherty won was because he had a gameplan. As Dave pointed out, he would mess up the table a bit to increase the amount of broken play, so by reducing his own chances of clearing up he actually increased his own chances of winning! As we've seen in the years since that match Hendry has a tendency to lose scrappy frames.

At the time all the young players coming through were trying to outscore him, and perhaps only Ronnie could rival him in that aspect. Doherty perhaps faced the greatest barage of scoring ever faced by a player in the 1994 UK final, and he knew he had to find another way to compete. Doherty can probably be credited for bring a tactical dimension back to the game, and Higgins, Williams, and even Ronnie all realised snooker was a bit more than a potting contest. Unfortunately for Ken he wasn't as consistent at scoring, so never really went onto bigger and better things. I think playing as he did he would have stood a chance of derailing Hendry any year he won it, so I don't think it's accurate to say that Doherty won due to a sub-par Hendry performance—he certainly wasn't sub-par going into that event having won two or three events already in 1997, plus the UK at the end of '96.

Anonymous said...

Number 8 coming up. Just you watch. It could happen.

Dzierzgul said...

Great post!
I started watching snooker just a couple of years ago (it wasn't televised before in my country) and I've never had the chance to see Hendry at the top of his game. Despite this, very quickly he became my favourite player and when he's playing well it's a real joy to watch. His recent 147s, his matches against Dave Harold in last year's Welsh Open, 2009 Crucible battle against Ding or those terrific, clinical century breaks (long red, split the pack and perfect break-building - he sometimes makes it all seem so easy) - I love them all. And I'd love to see him winning another ranking tournament though I know it's unlikely. Still, carry on, Stephen!

Anonymous said...

The 7th World Title Win must have been probably the most impressive win, noy only beating Davis and Reardons record of 6 titles, but the very difficult draw and route to the final, including the final.
O' Sullivan and Williams were very dangerous to be up against at that time, and Wattana has been a previous World no 3 ( I think).
He only missed out on a Higgins.

Had Hendry won the 8th against Ebdon ( like he should have done really) that would have been even more amazing , as I think he had been written off by quite a lot of people before then.

The only shot I can really remember in that match was the Black missed by Ebdon for the title for a 18-16 win, and then the very difficult long pot blue that Hendry wenrt for early in the final frame, ( I really wish he hadnt)

It would be great if he could have a decent run, He has had 2 semi finals in the past few years remember, who knows how far he could go?

Anonymous said...

Let's be honest, we all (and especially Rob Walker!) want him to win no.8 so we can call him Hendry the Eighth!

Anonymous said...

Great post Dave!

I hope Hendry can do well in this year's tourney and we won't witness the highs of 147s in one frame and missing sitters in the next!

I hope Hendry just decides to grind out the close frames..if he can do that, he's in with a chance....

Anonymous said...

i know stephen and have done for many years
i wont go into details as they arent for public, hence why i never went into detail in my earlier post.

if you think it dismissive, tough!

not long before and for a while after that final there were many exceptional personal/company circumstances. thats as much as id say

all above imho

Anonymous said...

Great read David, thanks.

On his day, Hendry can still play majestic snooker and beat anyone in the game. Unfortunately, it's an inability to sustain it for the duration of a whole tournament rather than one match which is proving costly.

As he has shown in recent years, he is more than capable of producing a great one-off match, or maximum break, but he then seems spent after it.

I appreciated Hendry's skill when he was winning all those title and beating Jimmy, but I didn't like him. Davis was my hero and to see him shoved out and discarded by Hendry was not enjoyable.

But as is often the case with great sporting legends, once his career began to decline I appreciated him much, much more, and would find myself willing him on to win.

I would love it, love it I tell you, if he holds aloft that wonderful trophy at the Crucible on May 2.

Anonymous said...

I believe Hendry's decline from the 9-0 beating by cambell was turned around by a certain coach.

For whatever reason, when Hendry won his 7th title, he never mentioned the help he had from his coach.

Apparently he just said he had help from someone well known in the game.

Anonymous said...

Great post indeed Dave...keep 'em coming.

In response to some posters I'd like to quote Hendry on his lack of "willingness" to compete in the tactical side of the game.

When asked by David Vine how/what was up with loosing those "close frames" Hendry simply replied that "I'd rather loose a frame due to a missed pot than due to a bad safety since at least I can then say I went for my chances".

To me that just says it all, he doesn't want to grind frames out, he wants to win them.

Unfortunely for him, players such as Higgins, Doherty, and even Selby have combined both approaches :)

Personally, I sincerely hope Stephen cna have a good run and remain in the top-16 since I truly believe that's where he still belongs.


Anonymous said...

Jurgen, while stephens mindset is still very similar, what he regards as chances these days are a little easier than the 1/4 chances he took on back then that all sailed in the middle of the hole.

these days a 7/10 long pot is a 4/10 long pot and even when he gets in he makes many more errors, so, playing in the same style and taking the difficulty into consideration still doesnt reap him a good reward ratio....slipping him down rankings.

sad though it is.