Snooker legend Stephen Hendry has spoken of the “culture shock” of being forced to play tournament qualifiers after crashing out of the game’s top 16.
The seven-times world champion dominated the sport in the Nineties and spent a record 23 seasons in the top 16, racking up an incredible 36 ranking titles.
But the 43-year-old, who was world No 1 for eight consecutive years from 1990 to 1998, slipped out of the top 16 when losing in the first round of the Shanghai Open in September last year.
That meant he missed this year’s Masters – an invitation event for the game’s elite – for the first time in 23 years and had to join rookies and journeymen in the scramble for tournament places in the qualifiers.
That proved to be a humbling experience for the proud Scotsman and this weekend sees the ultimate low as he returns to Sheffield – the scene of his record-breaking seven world titles – forced to compete in the World Championship qualifiers simply to reach the televised first-round stage at the Crucible.
Swap the vibrant, tension-filled Crucible Theatre for the less salubrious English Institute of Sport and Hendry accepts it has been tough adapting.
“I have played in front of packed halls, Wembley, two-and-a-half thousand people crowds, all around the world,” he said.
“Then you come to qualifiers and you play in a little cubicle with no people watching. It is a culture shock and I can’t say that I enjoy it.
“But it’s the position that I am in and I have to get on with it.”
Despite being the high-profile name that all the other qualifiers want to beat, Hendry has won four out of his five qualifying tests and admits he has had to curb his natural flair for entertainment.
“You have to get your head around having to play in the qualifiers,” he stressed. “I have done quite well, I have won four out of my five matches to qualify for tournaments, which is probably better than I expected.
“I think you just have to adopt the attitude that you are just there to win, not to play well; don’t go expecting to play well, just go and get the match over and done with,” added Hendry, whose target is to break back into the world’s top 16.
“That would be great, so I can take the qualifiers out of it. It obviously eats into your schedule as well, having to play qualifying matches all the time.
“My best result is probably beating Neil Robertson 4-1 in the Welsh Open, but you have to say it’s kind of depressing when you have to look at single matches as your best performance.
“I have had a fantastic career and have nothing to prove, but I am in sport to win and to count a performance as just winning first-round matches is not what I am about.”
Hendry has no immediate plans for retirement but has no intention of following in the footsteps of one of his veteran rivals, Steve Davis, and playing professionally into his 50s.
He is spending more time in the Far East in sponsorship deals, he is the global embassador for Chinese Pool – “it is like our eight-ball but on a three-quarter size snooker table” – and has also signed on the Snooker Legends tour. His first appearance comes on Friday, when he returns to the Crucible to play Jimmy White.
Hendry said: “I enjoy playing still, but obviously I am nearer the end of my career than the start.
“In the future, retirement is something I will think about, that’s why I am doing a lot more things away from snooker. A lot of sponsorship stuff, most of which is in the Far East.
“I will still be playing snooker, whether it’s things like the Legends Tour – I don’t think I will ever put the cue down in my life, I love the sport – but in terms of playing competitively at 50, not a chance.”
Before jetting out last month to compete in the China Open, Hendry had already been to the Far East three times in 2012.
“Snooker has always been popular there. The first time I went in about 1988, it was popular with good crowds. But it has just grown and grown and with players like Ding Junhui being one of the top players, it has just increased the popularity. In China, I am almost more recognised than I am in the UK.”
For now, Hendry’s focus is on a return to Sheffield this week.
“It will be fantastic to play Jimmy at the Crucible, it will bring back a lot of memories,” said Hendry, who beat White in four Crucible finals.
“There were some great battles between us in the Nineties and I am really looking forward to it.”
Hendry leaves you in little doubt of the rivalry that still exists between the pair.
“We will have a few laughs but at the end of the day, once you get your cue out, you want to win. We are all competitive, have been in the sport a long time and have pride in performance.”