Snooker legend Stephen Hendry fears Ronnie O’Sullivan could smash his Crucible record of seven world titles.
The Scotsman, who retired from playing two years ago after dominating the sport throughout the Nineties, has watched the Essex potter win back-to-back world titles to take his tally of Crucible crowns to five.
But at 38, O’Sullivan’s form shows no sign of waning and he cues off in Sheffield this morning as hot favourite to retain his title.
The Rocket has already broken Hendry’s record of 11 maximum 147s – reaching his 12th at last month’s Welsh Open in a 9-3 win over Ding Junhui.
He is also closing in on Hendry’s record of over 700 centuries, and the Scotsman now fears for his legendary Crucible status.
“I think that Ronnie is the only player that can do it,” said Hendry, in an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post. “Because he is only playing when he wants to play, there is every chance he will stay fresh – and motivated – to actually beat my record.
“Obviously I am praying that he doesn’t, you like to keep your records, but he is slowly knocking my records off one by one.
“Ronnie is the best player in the world by a stretch. You have got Ronnie, then a level below you have half-a-dozen to eight players who are all high standard. He is the benchmark.
“I don’t want to see any of my records broken. Ronnie took the maximum record at the Welsh Open, so unless I come out of retirement that’s one he has got.
“As long as he keeps playing, it’s only a matter of time before he takes that century break record – which I think I am 40 or 50 ahead of him.
“Seven world titles is obviously the big one. You don’t want to lose your records, but when someone comes along that dominates the sport like Ronnie, you think it’s only a matter of time,” added Hendry, who is back in the Steel City as part of the BBC commentary team for the next 17 days.
Hendry insists he has no plans to come out of retirement but revealed he may have delayed hanging up his cue if the current ranking system – based on money earned rather than points – had been introduced earlier.
Asked if he was poised for a surprise comeback, Hendry said: “No, not at the moment. But the way the system is now, you can pick and choose tournaments, and I might have delayed my retirement if that had come in while I was still playing.
“I think it’s too late now. When I am working for the BBC, watching on Sunday nights, you do miss it then.
“That’s when you are playing for the prize and picking up the trophy.
“But in terms of a lot of the small tournaments you have to play in, going back to practising five hours a day, no I don’t miss that at all.
“The practice becomes a lot harder the older you get. It becomes difficult to do meaningful practice, you end up going through the motions, which doesn’t benefit your game.
“A lot of my success came because I was so sharp, because my practice was so good. But near the end I wasn’t practising the way I was supposed to, and consequently your game suffers.
“The new system, where ranking is on money earned, will help the top players. If they have good results in top tournaments, they can miss two or three smaller events. That will keep them fresher.
“When I was still playing, you had to play in everything because there were so many ranking points attached to everything.
“It made it tough for someone to sustain the appetite for playing well.
“On the other side of the coin, you look at Ding Junhui, who won three tournaments in a row. Because there’s tournaments every other week, if you hit form you can win three or four in a row because you are full of confidence. You don’t have to wait for a month, like we used to for your next tournament,” added Hendry.
Chinese potter Ding, who has lived in Sheffield for the last decade, last month equalled Hendry’s record of winning five ranking titles in a season.
His 10-5 China Open win over Neil Robertson matched the Scotsman’s feat set way back in 1991-92, and means Ding heads for the Crucible as one of the challengers to O’Sullivan’s dominance.
Ding has always been touted as a future world champion – since shooting to prominence as a teenager – but has struggled to perform under the Crucible spotlight. But with a growing maturity, and a cabinet full of trophies, Ding is perfectly poised to excel in his adopted home town.
“I have played well since the Shanghai Masters last year and I’m not feeling that much pressure,” said Ding. “In a final, you will always face the best players in the world and you will know their game well.
“I can’t tell my feelings now about winning five ranking titles this season.
“With so many wins, my mindset is very different than before. I’m getting more and more experienced, playing many finals, especially playing Ronnie O’Sullivan in the Welsh Open final. I think I learned a lot from that match. I hope there will be more finals to come.”
That Welsh Open defeat last month was a 9-3 demolition by the Rocket, but unlike the 2007 Masters where a young Ding was reduced to tears and offered to quit at the interval, he was able to learn valuable lessons by watching the unique talents of O’Sullivan.
It allowed him to maintain that equilibrium which is so important in professional sports stars and Ding certainly has a fan.
“Once I start slowing down, I hope Ding dominates,” said O’Sullivan, who rounded off his victory with a breathtaking maximum 147 in the final frame. “He plays the game as it should and people should enjoy him.”
Rich praise indeed, from the Essex potter, although Hendry for one will hope that decline comes sooner rather than later so not to challenge his title of ‘Crucible King’.