Throughout July, BBC Scotland’s Sporting Nation series is reflecting on some of the greatest feats and personalities from Scottish sporting history. Here we look at snooker legend Stephen Hendry, winner of seven World Championships, more than any other player in history.
Stephen Hendry’s not altogether sure where the killer instinct came from. The nerveless brilliance that saw off Jimmy White in four Crucible finals and Nigel Bond, Peter Ebdon and Mark Williams in three more to bring up his record haul of seven world titles, but he’s sure it had something to do with those nights spent playing money matches at Minnesota Fats, one of the hardcore snooker institutions in 1980s Glasgow.
He was only a boy then. Seventeen years old. Unsmiling, for the most part, and as clinical as can be. Moulded by his manager, Ian Doyle, into a clone of Steve Davis, this was a snooker machine in the making.
Those events in the smoke-filled halls shaped him, no doubt about it. “Whether I enjoyed it or not, I don’t know. I didn’t like walking into the place, I didn’t like the surroundings or the atmosphere but once I got to the table it was fine. People are drinking and smoking, you can imagine. You walk in and you’re trying to hide your face. It could be quite intimidating. They’ve got their money on and they’re supporting their own man. You’re down playing a shot and you’d get, Miss, you b******!’ You’d hear it. A great education for later on when I was playing Jimmy and everybody wanted him to win.”
‘When I started winning, I became the enemy’
Hendry arrived into the world of professional snooker and had nothing in common with most of its inhabitants. He was younger and he was different. In the beginning, Alex Higgins took a shine to him. Before long, Hendry won his first ranking tournament and quickly the shine was removed.
“Alex was really good me to me when I first turned pro, but at 18 I won my first event and then won a few more and I became the enemy. He turned,” he said.
“I was like the second coming of Steve Davis, who he’d had a hate relationship with. He just became more cold, little snidey remarks in the press. Him and Jimmy were the proper players and me and Steve were boring machines. We were the anti-snooker players because we didn’t go out drinking and getting up to whatever they were getting up to. We wanted to practise five or six hours a day and win every tournament and that was seen as not being a character.”
Hendry beat Jimmy White in 1990 to win the youngest ever world champion at 21, a record that still stands
That was the terrain of the time and he loved it. He said in one press conference that he’d be world champion by the time he was 21. “The response was kinda like, ‘Who’s this idiot?'” At 21, that’s exactly what he did in 1990. The youngest ever world snooker champion when beating White 18-12. Two years later he trailed White 14-8 in the third session of another final, won 10 frames in a row and a second world title. In 1993 and 1994 he did Jimmy again. Four crowns now. Nobody could touch him.
“Jimmy had taken over from Alex as the people’s champion. By ’93 and ’94 I’m getting booed by certain elements. Looking back to those days in Minnesota Fats, it toughened me up. The 1994 final was the one Jimmy should have won. It’s 17-17 and he was in the balls. He just needs to make a 50 break. I’d pretty much resigned myself to defeat. I looked up at a friend on the balcony and sort of gave a roll of the eyes. ‘It’s gone, this one’.
“He missed a black off the spot. Twitches it. I was out of my chair before the balls had stopped rolling.”
‘I said seven world titles was enough – I should have gone for 10’
Hendry made it five World Championships in 1995 with an 18-9 obliteration of Bond and made it six when beating Ebdon 18-12 a year later. Six was great, but Davis had six, so seven was the target. “Six was never enough.”
This is the mind of a champion – snooker’s greatest ever champion. He won his seventh title when beating Mark Williams 18-11 in 1999. In the press conference after the Williams final he said that if he never won another match he’d still retire happy. Looking back, he said that it was a “shocking thing to say”. What should he have said after fulfilling his life’s dream? “I should have been saying I’ve won seven but now I want to try to win 10.”
He could have won another. In 2002 he won a tumultuous semi-final against Ronnie O’Sullivan. “I thought that was the real final. I reckoned that whoever won between Ronnie and me would beat either of the other two. I got Ebdon in the final. I didn’t believe that Peter could beat me over four sessions. It’s one thing having confidence but it’s another thing when you don’t show your opponent enough respect – and I didn’t show Peter enough respect. He beat me 18-17. It’s a big regret. If I had been in there properly I would never have been in danger.”
The “downfall” happened from there. He developed the yips, occasionally at first and then more regularly. He played so badly in China in 2012 that he was reduced to tears. A short while later, Stephen Maguire did him in cold blood at the Crucible; 13-2. “I was playing like an absolute tool,” he says.
That ruthless self-examination was part of who he was, part of what made him the game’s ultimate winner.
You can listen to the full interview on This Sporting Life: Tom English meets Stephen Hendry podcast.