Weekend Interview: Snooker legend Stephen Hendry eyes one last Crucible hurrah

Stephen Hendry at the snooker table.
Stephen Hendry at the snooker table.
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Stephen Hendry calls it a “Rocky-style” chance for an amateur snooker player to earn a place at the World Championship.

But the Hollywood ending could belong to the seven-time Crucible champion after he announced he was coming out of retirement five years after hanging up his cue.

Stephen Hendry celebrates winning one of his seven world snooker titles.

Stephen Hendry celebrates winning one of his seven world snooker titles.

The 48-year-old will compete at next month’s World Seniors Championship – where eight legends of the sport will play alongside four amateurs – with the prize a coveted place at the World Championship in Sheffield in April.

In the week that gridiron’s Tom Brady redefined the definition of great sporting comebacks, The Yorkshire Post caught up with Hendry to discuss his surprise return after his self-imposed hiatus.

It is five years since he called time on an trophy-laden career following a 13-2 defeat to Stephen Maguire at the World Championship in Sheffield 2012.

But Hendry has been tempted out of retirement, the opportunity to prove he can still compete and quench the competitive streak, which saw him dominate the sport in the Nineties.

Scotland's Stephen Hendry (left) at the table during his game with Scotland's Stephen Maguire during the Betfred.com World Snooker Championships at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in 2012.

Scotland's Stephen Hendry (left) at the table during his game with Scotland's Stephen Maguire during the Betfred.com World Snooker Championships at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in 2012.

He will be up against the likes of former world champions Joe Johnson, Dennis Taylor, John Parrott and Cliff Thorburn in the World Seniors Championship at the Scunthorpe Baths Hall from March 21-25.

While the outpost of Scunthorpe may seem a million miles away from the tradition and prestige of the Crucible – the home of snooker – the prize for the winner is £10,000 and a place at this year’s World Championship.

A dangling carrot which has piqued Hendry’s interest but he is not interested in a “publicity stunt” return to the green baize.

He quit snooker because he had stopped winning – his mantra was “there is only enjoyment in winning, not playing” – and time spent on the sidelines has not melted that view.

“That was one of the reasons why I retired, when you took away the winning, you took a lot of the enjoyment away from playing snooker,” Hendry explained to The Yorkshire Post.

“My whole reason to be there playing, was to win. I had been used to winning so much, that when you take that away, you take away much of the enjoyment. I am not tempted to get on the main tour again, definitely not. I do miss playing, it’s what I am best at.

“Snooker’s not all I can do, but it’s what I am best at. Of course I miss playing, snooker will always be part of my life, whether I am playing or commentating.

“But I do miss playing, so this was a chance to get the cue out. Whether it leads to other things, we will cross that bridge when it comes. But I am definitely not going on the main tour to play full-time again.”

While a full-time return is off the agenda, Hendry’s competitive nature means he will arrive in Scunthorpe determined to win the Willy Wonka-style golden ticket to the World Championship in Sheffield.

“Can I still compete?” said the Scot, who turned professional aged 16, going on to win 36 ranking titles. “I still do exhibitions, so I still play, but there’s a competitive edge to this. It will be more light-hearted than ranking tournaments which you watch on TV, but the players in the seniors will still want to win. In a way, it will be a test to myself to see if I have still got that competitive edge in there that wants to win.

“We are all still professional sportsmen at heart, you never lose that. That’s what has helped us be successful in the past, because of that, and I don’t think you ever lose it. I have started practising a little bit already, but still have a lot of commitments. I am working with ITV in Preston, and then will be in China the week before I play in the seniors.

“So I won’t be practising like I used to, five or six hours a day, but I have started picking up a cue again.

“Once you go into a club and start to play for a couple of hours, you do get a little bit of a buzz knowing you are going to be playing some competitive snooker.

“It’s a competitive tournament, not an exhibition, and I will be taking it seriously,” said Hendry, who travels to China up to a dozen times each year for business. “I am not going to be able to practice as much as I would like before Scunthorpe, but I will be taking it seriously, don’t worry about that.”

Four qualifying events for players over 40 are being staged in the UK over the next month – including one at the Northern Snooker Centre in Leeds from February 22-25 – to produce the quartet of amateur finalists.

The winner in Scunthorpe will then earn a place in Sheffield, where they will need to win three qualifying rounds at Ponds Forge to progress to the televised Crucible stage.

So it is a long road for Hendry to travel but he admits he would love to return to the famous Sheffield theatre.

“It’s one step at a time,” he said. “But the winner of the seniors does get a ticket to the World Championship.

“You still have to win three rounds to actually qualify to play at the Crucible. But I would be lying if I I said there wasn’t a small piece of me that would love to play there again.

“I had so much success there and it’s still the premier place to play snooker, it’s my favourite place. If I ever get a chance to pick up a cue again and play seriously, that’s where I want to do it. It would be amazing just to get there. Every year people ask ‘why don’t you enter the World Championship?’ but I wouldn’t do that just for a publicity stunt to say I am playing.

“I would only do it if I thought I could do myself justice. To turn up and lose 10-1 to someone, there would be no point in that. There are a lot of bridges to cross before then.”

While Hendry is the seasoned campaigner, he and his former champions, like Yorkshire’s Joe Johnson, know they will have to avoid falling victim to a “giant-killing” when the amateurs enter the arena in Scunthorpe.

“There must be loads of top amateurs, maybe former professionals, if they get their cues out and practice, then they probably have a better chance of winning the seniors than myself and John Parrott,” admitted Hendry.

“They have probably been playing in local leagues, amateur tournaments, week-in, week-out.

“So what an opportunity for them to come and win the World Seniors, win £10,000, and get a chance to play at the World Championship.

“It’s like a Rocky story, but if they then win three matches they could find themselves playing at the Crucible as an amateur.”

For that to happen, they will have to topple Hendry, like a certain Mr Balboa, a born winner who will be steeled for victory in Scunthorpe.