Stephen Hendry says that the ultimate target for his sensational return to the World Snooker Tour is to once again grace the Crucible Theatre in the final stages of the Betfred World Championship.
The legendary seven-time World Champion has taken up the opportunity of a two-year invitational tour card, returning to the professional circuit after an eight-year hiatus. He had appeared to have ended his career, when he announced his retirement following the 2012 World Championship.
However, after showing flashes of his former brilliance during a run to the semi-finals of the recent World Seniors Championship, 51-year-old Hendry felt it was the right time to get back to snooker’s top table. Now the Scot has his eyes set on qualification for snooker’s biggest event.
“The ultimate goal is to walk out at the Crucible again, but that is a long way off,” said 36-time ranking event winner Hendry.
“I’ll need to win four qualifying matches, when you get to the Crucible you need to win five matches to win the championship. You almost have to win a tournament just to get to the Crucible. If things get back to normal, it is packed and I can walk down those stairs, bow to each side of the arena and go to whatever table I would be on, that would be an incredible feeling.
“The buzz of being in an occasion, playing snooker in front of a packed audience, if we get back to normal obviously, I’ve always missed that buzz. As a sportsman that never leaves you. Working as a pundit at all of these events, there is that atmosphere but you are never playing. I’m always jealous of the players that are going out. I’m not going to lie, if I don’t perform it is going to disappoint me. It is a different situation though. Then I was seen as someone that should possibly still win and I couldn’t. Now I am a total underdog and I am just going to see what happens. If I do play well and start going deeper into tournaments, I will have to deal with that. At the beginning, I’m not putting any pressure on myself.”
The spark for Hendry’s return is partly down to coach Steve Feeney, who he began working with earlier this year. Hendry was encouraged to work with Feeney by close friend and three-time World Champion Mark Williams. Despite having not yet decided on a specific date for his return, Hendry believes his work with Feeney is starting to bear fruit. The opportunity to take up his tour card and put this to the test materialised during a recent game of golf with WST Chairman Barry Hearn.
“Mark has been on at me for well over a year to let Steve Feeney have a look at me. My game was so bad and even playing in World Seniors stuff, I just wasn’t enjoying it. Basically Steve asked me at the beginning what I wanted from this. I just said that I wanted to enjoy playing again and play shots that I know I can play. The sessions went well and I played some good frames at the World Seniors Championship. I was quite happy with how I was hitting the ball.
“We discussed with each other whether it would be worth asking Barry to possibly get an invitational tour card next year, like Ken Doherty and Jimmy White. I played golf with Barry last week in Essex, Mark Williams and I played him and Steve Davis. He approached me and Barry being Barry, he said he needed to know by the next day. It happened a bit fast, but I thought why not? He just said to play in what I want and that I don’t have to play in everything. It all happened very quickly.”
Hendry’s run to the semis of the recent World Seniors Championship included a win over current professional Nigel Bond, in a repeat of the 1995 Crucible final. He eventually lost out in the last four to his old rival Jimmy White. The 18-time Triple Crown event winner was encouraged by his performances last month and says he still enjoys the rush of competition. For now though, Hendry wishes to keep expectations low ahead of his return.
“That will always be rumbling underneath, that competitiveness. I don’t think you ever lose that as a top sportsman. Whether you are playing tiddlywinks or your chosen sport, you are always going to have that competitive instinct,” he admitted.
“There were a few frames where I just started flowing and scoring. That is what my game is all about, getting in early and winning in one visit. There were a few occasions where I was on auto pilot and it was all happening. However, there were still times when I didn’t have the composure and was thinking about the technical stuff I have been working on. When you are out there in the arena you can’t be thinking about technical stuff.
“All the best wishes I have had have been incredible. The coverage in the papers blew me away. I didn’t expect anything like that. I think the last time I was on the back page of a paper, I won my seventh world title. The reason I am trying to dumb it down a little bit is that it isn’t the comeback to win eight world titles, it isn’t a full-time comeback. I am going to play in some events and see what happens. I hope that people can keep their expectations, like mine, a little bit lower. I appreciate the good wishes, it has been amazing.”