Tom English: Stephen Hendry timed retirement right

Stephen Hendry announced his immediate retirement from tournament snooker yesterday (Getty)
Stephen Hendry announced his immediate retirement from tournament snooker yesterday (Getty)
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STEPHEN Hendry was walking round the table at Marco’s Leisure on Grove Street, Edinburgh; pudding-basin haircut, white socks and loafers and in a commanding lead in the final of the 1986 Scottish professional championship. It was March and he’d not long turned 17. He had what observers called a rather spooky self-possession.

He was, wrote Gordon Burn in Pocket Money, “Tall, erect, immaculate, he looked and even moved like a competitor in the old-time section of ‘Come Dancing: stopping and turning at the corners of the table, he locked his heels together and swivelled delicately on the balls of his shiny, leather-shod feet. His opponent, meanwhile, tattooed, brawny, bedecked in sovereign rings, laboured and sweated as profusely as if it was a pick-axe he was wielding rather than a cue. A couple of inches below the royal-blue stain backing of his waistcoat was a darn as big as a bathroom plug.”

Hendry became the youngest ever winner of the Scottish professional title that day, then he went to Preston to try and qualify for the world championships; four matches and four victories required to make it to the Crucible, to go down in history as the youngest ever to appear on snooker’s biggest stage.

He won his first three in Preston and faced the New Zealander, Dene “Deno” O’Kane in the critical fourth match. O’Kane was 23 years old and sharp. The year before he’d won the Dulux Open and the £18,000 he trousered in victory was enough to shoot him up to world number 32. Deno had a guru and the guru was working. He was into that stuff. Guru Maharaji had been around Deno for five years by then and the Kiwi found his meditation a rejuvenating experience. “It helps me, just in my life as a person here on earth,” he said. “It gives you the feeling that you’ve got love in your life.”

Deno was 5-0 down to Hendry before he could spell karma. Before the evening session he must have had a visitation from the Maharaji because he changed in those moments, the anxiety of before now replaced with an inner-peace and a run of frames that put him in the lead. Deno led 9-8 and needed only one frame to win, but he couldn’t get it. The match went to 9-9. In the decider, Deno raced into a 41-point lead and looked a certain winner, but out of nothing Hendry produced a nerveless break of 32 and won by eighteen points. Afterwards, an interviewer asked how one so young could stay so calm under pressure. “I knew I had the bottle,” he replied.

His first Press conference was an event. The room was packed and the questions were fired at him like darts. “They kept at him, but he said nothing wrong,” the press officer, Ann Yates recalls. “Not a flicker of an eyelid out of place. Nothing. It was frightening. It frightened me. It can’t be natural, not for a 17-year-old.” The 17-year-old is now 43, the snooker player now an ex-snooker player. When Hendry announced his retirement the other night the shock reverberated around the game like a giant stun-shot. Nobody had expected this. In a sport that is all about accuracy and anticipation, nobody saw it coming. He’d just beaten the great John Higgins, for goodness sake. He’d just had a 147 against Stuart Bingham. Sure, Stephen Maguire had given him a ferocious pounding but that was in the quarter-final. It was a performance to build on, was it not? Surely the beginning of something not the end of everything?

The clues were there, though. Before the Maguire match Hendry spoke to the BBC and in his words and body language it was clear that he wasn’t happy. He talked about his snooker life away from the glamour of the Crucible, the fact that he hadn’t won a tournament for the longest time, the frustration of falling so low in the world rankings, the disappearance of the animalistic instinct he once had for practice and competition. He mentioned the “cubicles” he now plays in on tour, the “boxes”, the tiny venues where no television cameras exist, where the audience consists of the family members of the player he is facing and nobody else. “Without being disrespectful, it’s a big day for them, but it’s not a big day for me,” he said. “It’s not what I’m in snooker for. I’m in the sport to win, not to be one of the others.”

The others. That is what he had become on the ever-expanding season, a schedule of Players Tour championship events that almost unnoticed drifts in and out of one minor venue after another. One of the others at the South West Academy in Gloucester, one of the others at the Convention Centre in Killarney, one of the others at the Bailey Allen in Galway, one of the others in Warsaw and Antwerp and Fuerth in Germany.

Hendry started his Players Tour Championship season by losing to the 20-year-old Englishman, Kyren Wilson, at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. That defeat took him outside the world’s top-16 for the first time in over 20 years. Then he fell to 21st and missed one of the marquee events of the year, the Masters, for the first time in 23 years, a tournament he owned when in his pomp, winning five in a row from 1989 and winning six times in all.

He had got into a cycle of grim venues, the kind of places he used to adore when he was a kid and had the determination and the bottle to beat everything in his path, but it’s hard to go back to these places when you know what life is like on the other side, when you’ve got a family and business interests, when you really don’t care as much as you used to. He was forced to qualify to play in the UK championships, forced to qualify again for a place in the Welsh Open and the China Open and the world championships. By the time he reached the Crucible he had made his mind up that he wasn’t doing this to himself anymore, that it was one last hurrah at Sheffield and he was out.

The manner of his leaving was typical Hendry. The news was delivered deadpan in the wake of his loss to Maguire. In the days since, the BBC have interviewed him a number of times and have shown him compilation videos of his greatest moments on the baize, glimpses of the great champion that he was against a backdrop of praise from his peers, one legend of the game after another eulogising the finest of them all. To many, to be faced with these tributes and these reminders of your genius might make you wistful or even emotional, but not Hendry. He was as cool when watching the re-runs of his greatest triumphs as he was when executing the shots under pressure that made him the coruscating champion that he was.

There was no great sentiment and no sign of tears, just appreciation for all that the game gave him, pride in what he achieved and a determination to move on. Yesterday, in the latest homage, Barry Hearn said that he should be knighted. He also said that Hendry might wake up one day and regret his decision, but there is very little chance that Hendry will change his mind or even think about changing it.

Part of what made Hendry so special was not just the brilliance of his play but the clarity of his thinking, the nerves of steel on the pressure break. He’s no longer able to perform to that level on the table but his decision-making is still as precise as ever. He made the right choice in leaving snooker when he did, with his legacy intact, no longer in danger of being tainted by scuffling around the backwaters of the game. Seven world titles is what we’ll remember. The invincible years might belong to the past but they’re still vivid. Greatness is like that. It’s indelible.