Gibraltar Open: ‘I want to reach 800 centuries and Crucible’ – Reborn Stephen Hendry sets target
A rejuvenated Stephen Hendry sprinkled gold dust on his return to competitive action after a nine-year absence from the main World Snooker Tour circuit despite a 4-1 defeat to Matthew Selt. The seven-times world champion knocked in his 776th career century before revealing his immediate ambitions in a sport he dominated in the 1990s.
Back in the old routine. Nine years away from the furnace has done nothing to quell Stephen Hendry's inner fire. It clearly continues to burn brightly after an engrossing 4-1 defeat to close friend Matthew Selt at the Gibraltar Open in his second coming provided the evergreen Scotsman with plenty of food for pot.
Almost a decade after disappearing into the vortex, the time travelling seven-times world snooker champion re-emerged from the ether in Milton Keynes looking like he had never been away.
A lovely break of 107 in the second frame was enough to settle his nerves as snooker diehards revelled in the return of a genuine green baize icon who has clearly missed the sensation of competing during time spent working as a TV pundit.
"Getting ready and putting my suit on, I really felt quite nervous which is a good sign because without nerves you can't perform," said Hendry, who was handed a two-year invitational tour wildcard by WST chairman Barry Hearn last September.
But it needs to be nerves of excitement and expectation rather than nerves of not knowing what is going to happen."
His first tentative steps 36 years after his first debut as a professional seemed to excite the great British sporting public as much as Lester Piggott getting back on a horse.
When you are as supremely talented as Hendry, hope springs eternal. At some point between 7pm and 8pm (GMT) on Tuesday night, a day after British springtime had officially sprung up, Hendry was top of the Twitter trends in the UK courtesy of a rousing 776th career century at a sport forced to take shelter in Buckinghamshire due to the pandemic.
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A familiar position for the master of positional play who spent a record eight years as snooker number one between 1990 and 1998 before returning to that elevated position in 2007, two years after his 36th and final ranking title success in Malta.
Top of the pots again for the bloke who made the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield as comfortable as his own living room with delectable world victories in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1999.
All that was missing during the days of his life was a decent futon to chill out on between frames such was the Scotsman’s sense of belonging to the fabled Sheffield venue.
“I’ve always tried to keep my expectations down about this comeback,” said Hendry.
It’s not a full-time comeback, about coming back to win eight world titles or anything like that. I’m coming back to enjoy the buzz of playing again. Hopefully, there will be people back in the arenas next season.
“And if my game continues to improve, see what happens. That’s all I want.
Qualifying for the Crucible is the goal and making 800 centuries is another goal, but yeah, just to enjoy being back playing really.
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Hendry defeated Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White in the first of four finals to become the sport’s youngest world champion at the age of 21 in the same year Gazza was becoming a national treasure by bursting into tears at Italia ’90 and singing Fog on the Tyne with Lindisfarne in a shell suit.
The same year witnessed Piggott emerge from five years in retirement to win the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park.
Heady days indeed, but there is nothing like a trip down memory lane to stir emotions. Hendry remains a breed apart.
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When you are as prodigious as he continues to be at potting snooker balls, there will always be room to dream. His first round loss belies the nature of Hendry’s impressive output in his comeback special.
Not only was Hendry better than average, it probably exceeded his own expectations. Selt arguably performed sharper than his world ranking of 25 which hardly left Hendry sporting a hangdog look.
Hendry turned 52 in January. He walked away in 2012, deflated and defeated about the technical condition of his game following a 13-2 flogging by Stephen Maguire in the World Championship quarter-finals.
'Not yet' - Hendry knows he has work to do before Crucible test
Work undertaken with Stephen Feeney, the celebrated SightRight coach who has helped Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan claim world titles in the past three years, has left Hendry feeling a whole lot more positive about the consistency of his cue action.
He feels like he is striking the ball with more conviction than nine years ago. It certainly showed in the attack-minded cut-throat environs of the modern match play era which he helped to create back in the day.
"I think there is work to be done. I've got about a month of practice to get it better,” he said. "I played one or two good safety shots, but it wasn't tight enough.
On another day, it could be different. I've been commentating on matches where players are missing long balls all over the place. Matt never missed one.
"So if they don't go in and he leaves me in, it could be a different result. Matt's long game was fabulous.
"My safety has to be tighter and my long game has to be better. It's not ready yet to qualify for the Crucible."
A missed brown by Selt in the second frame, one of the rare errors the Romford man produced, saw Hendry pounce with as much desire as in his pomp.
A nonchalant knock of 107 will leave him aware of the possibilities despite him playing down his prospects before the World Championship qualifying begins on April 7 at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. His old black magic is not a curse.
“I wouldn’t have given him a hope of qualifying for the Crucible coming into this, but he has clearly proved he can get there, for sure,” said Selt.
“He has the one thing that I don’t have and lot of others don’t have – unbelievable amounts of bottle, and he has won everything in the game.
When the opportunity presents itself, he will take it, whether it’s to win a match or get to the Crucible. It’s a bit early to say he will be competing for titles, but if anyone can do it, after that performance I genuinely think he can.
“The scoreline is flattering although I played pretty good. He put me under pressure. Every credit to him.
“I think he can sharpen it up in four or five weeks. He used to practice his long potting an hour a day every day for two weeks. It can be resolved in that time.”
Hendry’s resolve cannot be questioned. That he is back on the starting grid is an achievement in itself, but he sprinkled enough gold dust to suggest his return is far from fool’s gold.