By Michael McMullan
Every World Championship is special in its own way, with its own stars, stories and dramas, but this year marks the 20th anniversary of a championship universally regarded as one of the greatest ever, which reached its climax with an authentic moment of sporting history.
The year before hadn’t been bad either. John Higgins had become champion for the first time at the age of 22, making an unprecedented 14 centuries as he raised the bar even higher from the relentless standard Stephen Hendry had set throughout the nineties.
Hendry himself had long since departed after an astonishing first round match in which Jimmy White had raced into a 7-0 lead and gone on to win 10-4, earning himself just a hint of payback for the four world final defeats he had sustained against Hendry during his ultimately fruitless quest to put his name on the game’s greatest prize.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world, to lose in the first round at Sheffield and then have to go home, because it’s such a long tournament and it’s hard to avoid it, it’s on the TV all day every day, and if I lost I didn’t want to be anywhere near snooker,” Hendry reflects two decades on.
Hendry’s early exit meant his eight-year reign at number one in the rankings would be over if Higgins went all the way, and once he had achieved that Higgins went on to consolidate his position as the new top dog the following season. Indeed he arrived in Sheffield to defend his world crown as holder of the game’s three biggest titles, having beaten Matthew Stevens to win the UK Championship in November, and Ken Doherty in a dramatic Masters final in February.
It had been a different story for Hendry, who cut a forlorn figure for much of the season before gradually turning his form around as winter turned to spring, winning the Scottish Open and Irish Masters.
“I’d started working again with Frank Callan a few months before the Crucible, going back to basics, really piling on the hours on the practice table, and felt quite good about my form.”
The 1999 World Championship was never going to be just about the two Scottish giants though. Welshman Mark Williams had won three ranking events already that season, and although it hadn’t been the greatest of seasons for England’s Ronnie O’Sullivan, he had already done more than enough in the sport to be a contender in every tournament he played.
Higgins demonstrated his credentials on the opening day by beating Gerard Greene 10-2, including a 142 total clearance which would prove to be the highest break of the championship. For Hendry the first round was a very different experience as he trailed Paul Hunter 8-7 before winning a close frame to level, making 68 to go in front, then putting together 93 from his first chance in frame 18 to go through 10-8.
Hendry recalls: “I had a tough draw, so when that came out it makes you alert straight away. I’ve had some easy draws in the past and won comfortably, but I knew I had to be switched on from day one. Paul wasn’t probably quite the player that he was to become but it was still a hell of a tough match to have in the first round.”
Level at 7-7 with James Wattana of Thailand in the last 16, Hendry pulled away with six frames in a row to reach the quarter-finals, where he raced into a 5-0 lead over Stevens and never looked back on the way to winning 13-5.
“I was starting to feel not quite like my early to mid 90s dominance, but once I got past the Paul Hunter match I started to feel it was a big one to come through to start with, and the next two rounds were pretty comfortable. Once I got to the semis, every day I was gaining confidence and belief.”
The other pre-championship favourites had all made it to the last four without any major concerns along the way, and so Hendry would face O’Sullivan, who was in the semi-finals for a third time and looking to secure a world final debut which was starting to feel a little overdue.
It was a classic, particularly in the later stages of the third session. From 10-10, Hendry had back-to-back centuries to lead 12-10, but O’Sullivan’s response was magnificent. Two balls away from becoming the first player ever to have made two Crucible maximums, he missed the pink on 134 in frame 23, but shrugged off that disappointment with 110 in the last frame of an unforgettable Saturday morning.
O’Sullivan carried that momentum into the evening session, taking the opening frame to lead for the first time in the match, but Hendry was unperturbed as he put together a run of five straight frames highlighted by breaks of 75, 78 and the 86 which completed victory at 17-13.
“Four session matches are what make the World Championship the best test,” said Hendry. “It’s all about stamina and keeping your concentration over long periods, and I’d been doing that my whole career. I was just able to finish stronger in that match, it was as simple as that.”
The other semi-final was also a contest of the highest quality, and from 8-8 after two sessions Williams sped away to win 17-10, leaving Higgins visibly distraught, and taking the left-hander into the world final for the first time.
Having already played Hendry in three major finals and won them all, Williams had no reason to feel intimidated by his opponent’s reputation, but by winning each of the first three sessions 5-3, Hendry built up a 15-9 lead which he turned into victory at 18-11.
“It felt special because from winning the sixth title to equal Steve Davis in 1996, the goal was to win the seventh. It had been even after winning two or three really, it was always about getting to seven. It was a massive relief to finally do it.”
When it was all over, Hendry famously spoke openly about how setting that new record meant he would now be satisfied with his career even if he never achieved anything more, but looking back he feels that statement had a negative impact on everything which followed.
“Without a doubt, I switched off unconsciously. I won tournaments after, but I sort of let myself off the hook, thinking ‘you don’t have to work as hard, you don’t have to practise as hard, because you’ve said you don’t mind if you never win another match.’ I kind of settled, and gave myself a way out to do it, not quite part time, but to not put in the hours. I lost a bit of discipline after that.”
Despite that, Hendry so nearly won an eighth world title in 2002, again beating O’Sullivan 17-13 to reach the final, but this time losing to Peter Ebdon. It went all the way to the last frame, still the last world final to do so, but it remains a match on which Hendry looks back and acknowledges he just wasn’t good enough.
“After all the success I’d had, you get to thinking as soon as you get to the final that it kind of belongs to you. After beating O’Sullivan I kind of took it for granted I was going to win because it felt like that had been the final, and I probably didn’t have the 100 per cent right attitude going in.”
Hendry’s world finals
1990 beat Jimmy White 18-12
1992 beat Jimmy White 18-14
1993 beat Jimmy White 18-5
1994 beat Jimmy White 18-17
1995 beat Nigel Bond 18-9
1996 beat Peter Ebdon 18-12
1997 lost to Ken Doherty 18-12
1999 beat Mark Williams 18-11
2002 lost to Peter Ebdon 18-17
That was the last of Hendry’s nine world finals, and although he remained one of the best players in the world for some years after, it was never the same as being the very best, and he called it a day seven years ago. While he admits he would be “devastated” if his record of seven Crucible titles was ever overtaken, he feels his best days would still compare with what the top players are doing now, and that the big difference between his era and the present day is the strength in depth.
“The standard generally is very high, but it’s down the rankings where it shows to me more than anywhere else, when you go from ten to 30 or 40 in the rankings, that’s where it’s gone up a hell of a lot.”
Since his retirement Hendry has played in various seniors events, undertaken a heavy schedule of promotional work in China, and generally enjoyed his celebrity status in a way he didn’t have the opportunity to in his heyday, including appearances on TV shows like Celebrity Masterchef.
“I did hardly anything that wasn’t connected to snooker, so that’s one part of being retired, that I can take part in things. I still don’t do a lot but I certainly wouldn’t have done any of these things while I was still playing.”
To snooker fans though, Hendry is best known nowadays for the forthright, insightful style of commentary and analysis which he is again bringing to the BBC’s coverage of the World Championship, 20 years on from his last, historic victory here.
“I’ve always just said what I see, and that’s all I can do, just watch a game and say what just happened as I see it. If it’s a bad shot I’ll say so. A lot of players don’t like it because they’ll say ‘you’ve never missed a shot in the commentary box’ which is true but I’m paid to give my opinion and say what I’ve seen on the table. I think I’ve got the credentials to do that.”
Me and the Table, Stephen Hendry’s autobiography, is available now