With six Masters wins (five of them in consecutive years) and eighteen Triple Crown Tournament victories, Stephen Hendry’s legacy at the table is one that few can match or better. Having burst onto the scene in 1985 at just sixteen-years-old, snooker’s youngest professional to this day, there was no question that the foppish and fresh-faced Edinburgh-born Hendry was destined for great things.
By twenty-one the precocious star had taken his first World Championship, dispatching veteran Jimmy White in a 18-12 final that proved beyond doubt the imminent changing of snooker’s old guard.
“The pressure was easy to handle, for two reasons,” Hendry, now 50, says. “Obviously, I had a very strong family bond, a mum, dad, brother, people who would help me keep my feet on the ground. I still lived at home until I was in my early twenties. But also, my manager Ian Doyle was very instrumental in making sure I never got too carried away, that I didn’t take the prize money, and have it gone straight into my own bank account. It was in the company account and I was given a salary instead – so nothing went to my head.”
His victory against White in ’85 paved the way for a decade at the very top of the sport – competing with some of the strongest players ever to grace the baize.
“I’ve had the fortune of playing against some great, great players,” he nods. “Steve Davis was the toughest at the beginning, but there were players like Jimmy White, Willie Thorne: these people were great, great players.
I think nowadays the modern fan sometimes looks down on these players, thinking they couldn’t make a 20-break, which is ridiculous! Then in the Nineties, Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins all turned professional and they became some of the best in the world. Then later on there was Mark Williams. The most talented player I’ve ever played is Ronnie O’Sullivan by a mile, but I loved my battles with Steve Davis – they were great.”
It wasn’t just an unerring will to win that drove Hendry – “If I was on a 70 break and the frame was already won,” he says. “I’d want to carry on and clear the table, every time.” The Scot also became known for harnessing his natural ability into a gamut of awe-inspiring shots in high-pressure situations.
“There was the brown against Jimmy White in the ’92 final, when I was 14-9 down, that the commentator called ‘the bravest shot he had ever seen’,” he recalls. “it was a crazy shot to take on, if I’d missed it, I would have been 15-9 down going into the final session against Jimmy. He’d have needed 3 to win, I probably wouldn’t have won it. Instead I made it 14-10.
“Then there was a blue with a rest against Steve Davis in a UK final as well. I think probably when people ask me what my favourite performance or match was, and one was the UK final against Ken Doherty when I made 7 centuries – that’s something which still hasn’t been beat. That’s probably my best performance in a final.”
But as stratospheric a trip to the snooker summit as Hendry had had, he’d be the first to admit that his career – which ended in 2012 after another sobering 2-13 defeat to compatriot Stephen Maguire – was “a tale of two halves”.
“I had an unbelievable career,” he says. “When I got my first table for Christmas at twelve and someone had said that this is what was going to happen over the next 34 years, you’d have said they were crazy. But there’s my success and all my winnings, and then there’s the latter part when I wasn’t having too much success, and that bit isn’t the bit that I remember the fondest of course.”
Since hanging up his cue, Hendry has been open about the demoralising effect that the ‘yips’ had on his game during the autumn of his career. Primarily a mental handicap that affects grip and wrist movement, the condition ate away at Hendry’s natural penchant for easing out of tight situations at the table.
“It was much harder to find that mindset, because when you don’t have that confidence in your game, you’re thinking about that instead of letting it flow and come naturally,” he nods. “You’re on the back foot straight away so it’s hard to go into the match feeling confident if you know there is something wrong with your game.”
That being said, Hendry is a sure pick for an inclusion in the pantheon of snooker greats. Now a commentator for both BBC and ITV, he admits to still “missing the occasion” but has turned his attentions to working with young talent, particularly in China where he is Ambassador for 8-ball pool. When it comes to the future generation of stars closer to home, however, Hendry has some misgivings over the state of modern snooker.
“I don’t think any of the players are really sort of kept under the thumb, as it were, the way I was,” he explains. “Young guys are driving around in Porsches and Rolls Royces straight away, and I wasn’t allowed to do anything like that when I started winning.
“The culture is all towards social media and trying to make as much money as possible without putting too much effort in. Take football, it’s the ultimate sport when it comes to being on TV and getting that money. So, I think there’s the culture thing where young kids want things easily and aren’t prepared to work too hard for it.”
Even old pros like Hendry, however, are finding uses for the new outlets that modern interconnectivity affords them with their fanbase.
“I’m doing cue-tips on my Instagram account, where I give people tips on how to play shots or I take requests on shots to play, stuff like that,” he nods. “I’d like to get more involved in snooker, getting people into playing snooker hopefully. I’d never be a head coach but just getting people into the game and offering expertise in a live format like on social media.”
Me and the Table by Stephen Hendry is out now via Bonnier.