The bare statistics of snooker legend Stephen Hendry’s astonishing career justify the sort of swagger that was a feature of his utter dominance in the 1990s.
A record-breaking seven-time world champion and the youngest ever Crucible winner, Hendry’s relentless quest for perfection and attacking style saw opponents cowed and crushed with relentless regularity.
The Scot took the sport to a new level ensuring his place among the greats, if not leading the greats.
Such pioneering success perhaps made Hendry’s subsequent struggles and fall from grace to his eventual retirement in 2012 even more surprising.
In a revealing, in-depth interview with Simon Mundie on BBC Radio 4’s Don’t Tell Me The Score the 51-year-old discusses idols, inspirations, looking the part and playing the part, battling for supremacy with Ronnie O’Sullivan and the technical and mental psychological issues that overwhelmed him.
The 36-time ranking event winner, a record he holds jointly with O’Sullivan, said his problems started with a tightness in his cueing action followed by a critical inner voice.
“There were technical problems to start with, then it gets to you and you start to play the wrong shots because you are avoiding shots,” he added.
“When you are first playing, you have no fear when you miss. Over the years you miss one or two and then you get a voice saying ‘you shouldn’t go for this’ and that’s the start of the end playing sport aggressively.”
The no-fear approach worked a treat until he called it a day. A relative late starter, Hendry was hooked on the sport after getting his first table as a Christmas present just a couple of weeks before he turned 13.
‘Davis was the benchmark – I wanted to be like him’
“I played every second I could and fell in love with the game,” he explained. “I played other sport and was ok but never stood out. But I was really good at something and that made me want to play more and more.”
Hendry was soon winning title after title but it was not until his first victory over another member of snooker royalty, Steve Davis, that he really started to believe.
“At 18 I beat Steve and that was a major stepping stone,” Hendry added. “He had beaten me something like 17 or 18 times. After that thought I could be the best because I had beaten the best. I thought I just needed to beat him once.
“Over a 10-year period I did totally dominate the game. Steve Davis, who was the benchmark, dominated the 80s and I wanted to be like Steve.
“When I was learning my trade I wanted Steve to win. Jimmy White was my idol when I first picked up a cue but I quickly realised he wasn’t the one to model my whole outlook on.
“I was just greedy. I would win a tournament on the Sunday night and be practising on the Monday for the next one. I wouldn’t rest on my laurels. It was always a kind of anti-climax when they gave me the trophy. It was kind of ‘what’s next?’ rather than ‘this is amazing’.”
His manager Ian Doyle ensured Hendry stuck to the strict practise regime that put most of his contemporaries to shame.
Hendry described the initial shock of playing for six or seven hours a day as “torture”, but he soon adjusted and the clear and obvious improvements quickly made him embrace the challenge.
The debate about ‘the greatest’
Although his career did not span the same length of time as it seemed likely at one stage, he remains one of the sport’s biggest names – to such an extent that he and O’Sullivan are the two names vying for the accolade as the greatest in history.
“Whenever you go on social media, the debate as to who is the best is massive,” Hendry said. “Ronnie is still playing and, even though I have won more world titles, he probably gets 70% of the vote.
“But I have always followed the Tiger Woods mantra that as long as you are in the conversation then you have done something well.
“The battle in snooker is in your ears. It’s a very mental sport. Even if you aren’t feeling confident, try to portray that you are.”
And as for the strut around the table and the aura that saw many an opponent crumble and as good as beaten before the match got under way?
“The aura was not deliberate. It was just the way I walked around the table,” he said.
What can sport teach us about life and how best to live it? Each week Simon Mundie sits down with an expert and uses sport to answer life’s big questions.
Click on this link for the Don’t Tell Me The Score Podcasts to hear the full interview with Stephen Hendry.