Stephen Hendry once said he would retire from professional snooker at the age of 30.
He was 19 at the time. Today he turns 40.
And he is, of course, still competing. Why? Because he loves it. He loves playing, he loves competing and, above all, he loves winning.
I often read people opining that he should put his cue away because he ‘isn’t as good as he used to be.’
What a depressing scenario this is: that if you can’t still produce some of the best snooker ever seen 24 years into your career you should retire.
He can still play very well on the practice table and believes he can bring this out into tournaments. He did so in Bahrain until the semi-finals when it all disappeared again.
He refuses to believe it won’t reappear at some time for a sustained period and I think it would be dangerous to disagree (remember Steve Davis at the 2005 UK Championship?).
Anyway, what’s wrong with going down swinging?
Hendry is a much misunderstood figure. You often hear people complaining he ‘doesn’t smile’ during matches, as if the Crucible is a comedy club or exhibition venue.
He can be very prickly when he’s lost. In fact, he has a number of times refused to utter a single word to the media after a particularly disappointing defeat.
But away from the white heat of competition he is as personable as anyone. He lives a quiet life with his wife and two sons. Some columnists – eager for an easy story – may describe this as ‘boring’ but he is perfectly content.
It was a surprise Christmas present in 1981 that changed Hendry’s life for good. Had his parents bought him a set of golf clubs or a tennis racket, would he have gone on to be successful on those sports?
What is often ignored when discussing Hendry is his clear natural talent.
Four years after being given that 6ft table he was on the professional circuit. He remains the youngest person ever to play at the Crucible. He is still the youngest ever world champion.
Hendry helped changed snooker for good. Before him, there was only really Jimmy White who had found success playing with such attacking zeal to the virtual exclusion of any sort of safety game (Alex Higgins, by the way, was one of snooker’s best tacticians, although this is rarely noted).
The teenage Hendry went for everything and most of them went in. He couldn’t wait to get into the pack off the blue and build huge breaks. This is the style of snooker that has been adopted by all those who followed him and is prevalent today.
Coupled with his talent was a single-minded determination and extraordinary ability to play under pressure.
Most players get worse under such circumstances. Hendry, in his prime, got better.
I’d argue the exact moment he took over from Davis as snooker’s top dog was the 1989 UK Championship final, a brilliant match which he won 16-15.
Hendry remained the game’s best player until 1997 (although John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan were beginning to challenge that status) when a few cracks started to appear in his game. He lost that year’s world final to Ken Doherty and was a first round loser at the Crucible the following year to White.
When he lost 9-0 to Marcus Campbell in the first round of the following season’s UK Championship the vultures were circling, ready to write his professional obituary.
Hendry was adamant that he was not finished and rebuilt his game. It worked. He surpassed Davis and Ray Reardon’s modern day record of seven world title in 1999.
The 1990s was a much stronger era for snooker than many people realise or remember. To have won seven world titles in this decade is the ultimate achievement as far as I’m concerned.
His world final duels – 1992 and 1994 in particular – with White are among the great moments in snooker. The game is crying out for that sort of rivalry today.
Into the next decade, Hendry started to struggle with inconsistency. I watched him lose to Anthony Davies in the first round of the 2001 British Open and couldn’t believe this was the same man who had once made seven centuries in a UK final – possibly the best anyone has ever played.
Yet he found some form here and there, especially at the 2003 Welsh, European and British Opens, the latter of which he won with victory in a truly great final over O’Sullivan.
Since then, the bad days have been in greater abundance than the good days. That said, Hendry reached the World Championship semi-finals last season without really playing his best.
It would be sad to see him consigned to life at the Pontin’s qualifying school but, of course, all players decline in time.
The question for Hendry will be whether he really wants to put himself through all that or just bow out and join Davis and John Parrott on the BBC sofa.
Whatever he decides, there is no questioning his stature as snooker’s ultimate great.
If ever respect was due, it’s due to Stephen Hendry.