Snooker’s greatest has gone too soon

Desmond Kane

Time, tide and titles wait for no man. It is difficult to believe that it is 26 years since the teenage Stephen Hendry - described in his formative years as "The Wonder Bairn" - lost to snooker's self-styled Mr Maximum Willie Thorne on his first visit to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. While Thorne reserved his maximum breaks for the privacy of practice, Hendry got on quite splendidly with his business before millions. With three 147s rolled in at the World Championship over the past 26 years, he is a true Mr Maximum.

News of Hendry's retirement came after a 13-2 drubbing by Stephen Maguire in the World Championship quarter-finals. It is difficult to accept one of Scotland's finest sporting sons will no longer be seen doing what he does best at a venue where nobody does it better. Yet his lack of trinkets in recent times - he last reached a ranking final in losing the 2006 UK Championship to Peter Ebdon - suggests news of his departure should not cause an outbreak of wailing and gnashing of teeth around his residence in Auchterarder.

As he chewed on a piece of gum in making the announcement, a weight seemed to have been visibly lifted from the shoulders that revelled in 36 ranking titles, won over eight million pounds in prize money, became the sport's youngest world champion at 21 and amassed an unsurpassed 775 century breaks since 1985. There were no tears shed. The only time one can recall Hendry coming close to grief at the Crucible was in the seconds after Jimmy White usurped him 13-12 in the second round of the 1988 World Championship.

History will show White would be Hendry's victim in four Crucible finals, but those are now parts of snooker's grand tapestry. Whether or not he embarks upon punditry alongside his business interests in China, Hendry is suddenly a snooker ghost, a man whose name belongs to folklore alongside champions of yesteryear such as Joe Davis.

Unlike the ongoing Steve Davis, who continues to fight the good fight at the age of 54, Hendry and losing have never been natural bedfellows.

When Hendry was collecting what proved to be the last of his seven world gongs by quelling Mark Williams in 1999, a huge question mark surrounded the future of his time-honoured foe Davis, the man whose record of six he had overhauled and a figure who probably stands alongside him as a founding father in progressing snooker's television era.

In the last year of the 1990s and the early part of the new Millennium, Davis appeared to be a spent force. At 43, the same age as Hendry now, a new breed of player was beginning to rule the roost. Mark Williams, Ronnie O'Sullivan, John Higgins and the late Paul Hunter were a few of the names disturbing two decades of dominance overseen by Davis's superior tactical nous of the 1980s and Hendry voracious appetite for heavy break-building in the 1990s.

It was Hendry who spawned the generation of the attacking players we witness today. His  willingness to open the reds as early as possible was ground-breaking, but unlike Davis he has not taken kindly to the nosedive that professional sport inevitably brings to its leading figures with advancing years. When Davis failed to qualify for the 2001 World Championship, the 1979 world champion Terry Griffiths said that he should quit because his game had become embarrassing.

"I could retire, but I'm bloody well not going to," responded Davis. Rather than slip down the rankings towards oblivion, Davis has embraced the notion of competing rather than winning and has managed to enjoy some of his perkier moments in the sport over the past 10 years reaching finals at the 2004 Welsh Open and the 2005 UK Championship - when he memorably dispatched Maguire and Hendry before losing to Ding Junhui in the final.

Like Hendry the other day, he advanced to the last eight of the 2005 World Championship and managed to oust the defending champion John Higgins in reaching the World Championship quarter-finals in 2010. He achieved his aim of being inside the top 16 at the age of 50.

Like Davis, there was a feeling that Hendry could yet enjoy one last hurrah in the game. He did not play particularly well in being shredded by Maguire, but in making a 147 in the first round against the Australian Open holder Stuart Bingham, neither was he a figure ready for the knacker's yard.

Hendry last reached the World Championship final in 2002 when he lost 18-17 to Ebdon, who at the age of 41 won a ranking event at the China Open a few weeks ago. Ebdon is probably like Davis in that he will need to be dragged kicking and screaming from the sport. And even then, he will play on for snookers. Hendry's approach hinted at early retirement.

Davis's dependency on a solid tactical approach from his early days has given his game a longevity and a sense of contentment that appears to have eluded Hendry. If Hendry was not battering opponents into submission with big breaks at one visit and his once fabled long game, it seems like there was no plan B. This worked when he rode roughshod over a slipshod Bingham and Higgins in the opening two rounds, but blew up spectacularly against Maguire when he was no longer scoring.

Faced with a changing landscape and another 'new generation' beyond the likes of O'Sullivan et al, Hendry has not been willing to fraternise with a tactical approach that could have delivered greater riches in his 40s if he was of a mind to do so. His unwillingness to dilute his game with other methods has perhaps robbed him of several more years at the top level. Perhaps he did not want to tarnish what went before. Always leave them wanting more. His departure is the public's loss.

"I have thought for some time that if Stephen embraced the tactical side of the game a bit more readily, he could still compete with the top players as I think it would take the pressure off his scoring game," commented Hendry's fellow Scot Alan McManus last week.

"I think at the moment, he pushes the boat out far too often whereas lots of the other top players, for example Neil Robertson, have learned when to be a bit more streetwise in their shot selection. I think if Stephen followed suit, he would beat the top ranked players more often than he has done in recent years."

Losing does not come easy to winners, certainly not to the greatest figure to pick up a cue.

"I'm a winner and I still hate to see other players winning," he said. "I still believe the World Championship belongs to me." The only problem being that it didn't. It hadn't for some time. Hendry has earned the right to say 'enough is enough', but it also seems that the feeling of failure has been too heavy a burden to bear.

"You just don't heal that easy unless you're young," the former boxing world champion Sugar Ray Leonard once commented. In snooker, the bruising is all internal.

Hendry was somehow handed the big red book on This Is Your Life at the age of 21 and commented that "he had hardly had a life". In snooker terms, he has now.

Amid the glowing list of tributes that will rightly come his way, there remains a gnawing suspicion that the sprightly Stephen Hendry has gone before his time was up. This is no Frank Sinatra decision. The single-mindedness that saw him become the game's most vaunted player suggests "The Wonder Bairn" has gone for good.

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