x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Stephen Hendry's proved to be law unto himself in snooker

Hendry was a force in the sense of physics. He did not just beat players, he made them submit to a law. His safety was impeccable but his long potting was relentless.

Stephen Hendry won the world title seven times during his professional career as a snooker player.
Stephen Hendry won the world title seven times during his professional career as a snooker player.

"Stephen Hendry taught me submission better than any religion."

So arrived an e-mail from a cousin with whom I had spent days watching, playing and talking snooker in the mid-90s. My cousin believed in Steve Davis, the man who ruled snooker before Hendry arrived.

The tone of the remark - "submission" in particular - is important for that is precisely what it felt Hendry, who retired this week, did to everyone, including Davis.

Davis was a master tactician, great at safety, methodical and dominant. He had a dry wit as well, which took time to reveal itself but when it did, established him at the level of personality, a man people were comfortable with.

Hendry was a force in the sense of physics. He did not just beat players, he made them submit to a law. His safety was impeccable but his long potting was relentless, an inevitability to his very presence at the table.

In the process of winning he did not just gain himself, he subtracted a bit of each opponent: how long can you compete against a law of nature after all without going mad?

He took most from Jimmy White, who at one point in the famous 1992 World Championship final, sat back "in absolute torment" in the words of the commentator, as Hendry began to build in the 31st frame off an outstanding long pot.

Hendry worked his way to the black and eventually put together a break of 134.

By the end of the frame, he was not playing against White, or a world final. He wasn't playing. Like a law, he was simply being enforced.

Torment was appropriate, for White had not even left an opening in that frame. And that was the ninth consecutive frame he lost and would lose the next as well, letting slip a 14-8 lead as Hendry won his second world title.

The truly dehumanising aspect to Hendry was that it never looked like he derived particular pleasure from his triumph or from the opponent's pain. A naturally downturned mouth lent him presumed arrogance and during matches his eyes were dead.

In his overall effect he was not unlike the former tennis player Ivan Lendl, both exerting unsmiling tyrannies on their sport. And in a way his impact on the scene was as transformational as Lendl's with his baseline power game.

But the greatest similarity was how their entire existences were narrowed until the act of winning was all that remained.

All athletes - all humans really - want to win but some, like Lendl and Hendry, need to win. They won, therefore they were.

Only last week, at his last World Championships in Sheffield, Hendry was telling the BBC how much he would have hated someone making a maximum 147 against him.

"No one's ever made one against me, I would hate it - I wouldn't be genuinely happy for them," he said.

"It's not nice when the shoe's on the other foot. It's nice when you're beating an opponent and you're kicking him when he's down. That's what sport is all about, the only reason for playing."

By that criteria he must consider himself the greatest player ever, or at least the most successful. He won more world championships (seven) and more ranking titles (36) than anyone; he spent eight consecutive years at No 1 from 1990 and once went nearly a year without losing.

Although snooker has been in the midst of change for some time now (it has got a Twenty20-like format and China is becoming a new home; not surprising given it is a home for everything now) Hendry's exit is like the final click of a lock on an older room.

At least it feels that way personally. It is hugely popular in an unsaid but accepted kind of way in Pakistan, but I suspect Hendry's winning had much to do with how snooker came, briefly, to be a part of my life.

When his peak relaxed so did my interest, although Ronnie O'Sullivan's wide-boy style was intriguing.

Someone called Judd Trump is the next big thing, wowing people with his attacking game. He looks like he should be in a boy band.

Hendry, who with some styling could have been part of an early 90s boy band himself, plays Trump down: "Everyone goes on about how attacking it is, but that's exactly how I won World Championships. It's nothing new."

That's not bitter, just typical for a man who could not be bettered.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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