Last week the curtain closed on the fourth decade of competition at snooker’s Theatre of Dreams. Over that period Stephen Hendry has stood alone as the undisputed King of the Crucible…
The World Championship’s Crucible era has been defined by great champions. Ray Reardon won the last of his six world titles at the Sheffield venue, Steve Davis produced an almost metronomic domination of the 1980’s and Ronnie O’Sullivan has been dazzling fans on snooker’s grandest stage for 24 years. However, it was Stephen Hendry’s brand of intrepid attacking snooker which enabled him to storm to a record seven world titles, including five in a row, during the 1990s.
Throughout that period Hendry notched up a record winning streak of 29 matches. Over his time playing in Sheffield he has accumulated more points than any other player in history, a remarkable 106,467, which puts him 9,996 points ahead of Steve Davis in second.
Hendry’s most frequent adversary during his Crucible career was the enigmatic fans favourite Jimmy White. The Whirlwind’s Crucible story is diametrically opposed to Hendry’s brand of ruthless and unwavering title accumulation. White first graced the World Championship final baize in 1984, when he was narrowly defeated 18-16 by Davis. Nobody at that point would have thought he’d go on to reach five more Crucible showpieces without lifting the trophy.
Four of those defeats were at the hands of Hendry, but none of them would have stung as much as the now fabled 1994 final. The match went all the way to 17-17 and a final frame decider where, with White in prime position amongst the balls and leading 37-24, he missed a straightforward black. That afforded Hendry the opportunity to slam the door, with a break of 58 to win the fourth of his seven titles.
Hendry reminisced: “I’d played Jimmy so many times that I knew he was capable of throwing a miss in out of nowhere. But I have to say I was sat in my chair thinking, ‘this is over, I’m not getting back to the table here.’ I glanced up to a couple of my friends on the balcony with a resigned look. Although there is always a tiny part of you that keeps ready and believes something might happen.
“I cleared up without too many problems after he missed. I didn’t feel in danger at any point in the break. Looking back, I was so relaxed. It was amazing to be back to the table and given a lifeline after believing I had lost.”
Although that is the match that sticks out in the memory, Hendry’s relentless competitive streak means he looks more favourably on their meeting a year prior to that. The Scot took White apart 18-5 with a session to spare.
“The whole of the 1993 World Championship was when I played my best snooker. I dominated every match and was never really threatened. It was my favourite win,” said Hendry. “I always looked at winning a session early as a target. I’d seen Steve Davis do it to John Parrott in 1989 and I wanted to do it as well.”
His rivalry with White was played out with tremendous admiration and respect. In the closing stages of the 1994 final Hendry refused a free-ball, which he felt was incorrectly awarded to him by the referee, in what is now seen as one of the great sporting gestures in snooker history.
White has failed to reach another final since 1994, but Hendry maintained his vice like grip on the sport by securing further world final wins over Nigel Bond and Peter Ebdon. That took his tally to six, drawing him level with Reardon and Davis. He was denied a seventh in 1997 by Ireland’s Ken Doherty who stunned Hendry to win 18-12. Such was the prestige of winning a world final against the esteemed Scot, Doherty was welcomed home by 250,000 fans on the streets of Dublin.
Hendry would return to the world final two years later in 1999, where this time Mark Williams stood between him and history. In a classic performance Hendry swept to the title, leading for the entire match and running out an 18-11 winner. However, he didn’t go into that year’s event in the best of form.
He recalls: “I’d a really poor season ahead of the Crucible in 1999. I’d lost 9-0 in the UK Championship to Marcus Campbell and I’d lost three times to Tony Drago, who I’d never lost to in my life. I was just playing really poorly throughout the whole season. I had a tough draw at the World Championship, I had Paul Hunter in the first round and faced Ronnie O’Sullivan in the last four. So to find myself in the final was strange after the season I’d had.
“During the match I switched off from the fact I was going for my seventh. I knew I was going for it and that fact is always in the background, but when you are at the table you aren’t thinking about it.
“I said, in the press conference after, that if I never win anything else in my life I’ve done everything I could possibly want to achieve, which was probably a bad thing to say because I was still playing. But six was always the number, that was Ray Reardon’s total and that was Steve Davis’s total. It was an especially important figure with regards to Steve as he was playing in my era, he was the one I had to battle with. To surpass him and Ray was an amazing sense of achievement and relief.”
Hendry went on to claim five further pieces of ranking silverware. He would also grace snooker’s biggest occasion one more time, facing Ebdon in the 2002 World Championship final, after a brilliant defeat of O’Sullivan in the last four. However, it was a second instance of world final heartbreak for Hendry, as he was defeated 18-17.
“I didn’t think Peter would be able to beat me over 35 frames,” said the 36-time ranking event winner. “That is a terrible attitude to take into the final of the World Championship. But having beaten O’Sullivan in the semi, I thought I just had to turn up to win the final.”
Although the Scot was unable to add an eighth title to his CV, his record remains untouched. This year Mark Selby joined Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Steve Davis as the only players to have defended the world crown at the Crucible. However, the Rocket remains stranded on five wins whilst Selby has notched up three Crucible wins. The Scot feels his record is probably safe, however he still rues not pushing on further.
He added: “I probably unconsciously switched off after beating Mark Williams in 1999. Once you have seven titles where can you go from there? That was wrong and a bad attitude to have as I was easily capable of winning another two.
“I think it will be very difficult for someone to reach seven now. There’s a lot of players playing a very high standard. It will be hard for one person to rise above that. Mark Selby is looking stronger and stronger at the Crucible. The type of game he plays over long distances is very difficult for anybody to overcome. In the next three or four years he could string another two or three together.
“To win at the Crucible is the ultimate. You start playing snooker, then you have it as a career. At that point your initial ambition is just to play there. That is what you watch on television, it’s where you want to play the most and when you get there, especially in the one table situation, there’s nowhere that can even touch it.”