Stephen Hendry announced his return to the professional tour with the 776th century of his career but it was not enough to prevent a 4-1 defeat to Matthew Selt in the first round of the Gibraltar Open in Milton Keynes.
It marked the seven-time champion’s first match since he had announced his retirement after a crushing defeat to Stephen Maguire in the quarter-finals of the 2012 World Championships.
But for a foul on his very first shot when he attempted a two-cushion roll-up to the pack of reds, Hendry showed every indication of being equipped for the challenge, culminating in his superb break of 107 to briefly level the match in the second frame.
Hendry’s total centuries had become so enshrined in the game that it even made up part of his Twitter handle, @SHendry775 – but the 52-year-old may hold back on a social media tweak in the expectation of increasing that number deeper into his improbable comeback.
The 52-year-old might have hoped for an easier start than against his good friend Selt, the world number 35 with a ranking title – the 2019 Indian Open – to his name.
Hendry accepted a two-year tour card from World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn in September last year but rumours swirled over his true intentions after he pulled out of a series of projected comeback dates.
His bid was also questioned by a number of the game’s current stars, with world number one Judd Trump describing Hendry’s move as a “strange one”, and Ronnie O’Sullivan warning he will be plunged into a “rat race”.
Hendry, who won six Masters and five UK Championships in addition to his seven world crowns, will now turn his attention to his goal of regaining his place at the Crucible through the gruelling qualifying process next month.
He will have to win through four rounds to realise his major comeback ambition, and whilst it remains an improbable task, he will not be quite so readily written off after a result which was contrived more by the excellent form of his opponent.
Despite his initial mistake, Hendry had cause for encouragement in the opening frame, as an impressive long blue set up a break of 38, before a loose safety ultimately handed the advantage to his opponent.
Hendry bounced back in vintage fashion in the following frame, seizing his opportunity after Selt’s missed brown to fashion a superbly-executed break to black of 107.
An immediate response of 65 set Selt up to nudge back in front at 2-1, and the 35-year-old maintained his stellar long-pot success to carve a break of 48 which proved enough to nudge him one frame from victory at 3-1.
Never the biggest fan of safety play, Hendry was left to consider the improvements required in that element of his game if he is to stand a realistic chance of clawing his way back to the Crucible.
Selt continued his admirably focused display into the fifth frame, when he took two opportunities to build an unassailable advantage and close down his good friend’s comeback with a 4-1 win.