Stephen Hendry: The Sense of Possibility

As Stephen Hendry enters his 26th professional season on the back of what was arguably the worst season of his career to date, the vultures are circling and predicting that we might not even see the seven-times world champion at the Crucible this season. Could this really happen or will Hendry prove the doubters wrong yet again?

During his last 32 match with Zhang Anda this year at the Crucible, Snooker Scene editor Clive Everton remarked during commentary that when watching Stephen Hendry play there is always a sense of possibility, the fact that because of what he has achieved and the way that on occasion he still can play, there is always that sense that perhaps he could just reproduce that form again.

During 2009/10 however such form was rarely brought to the fore by the Scot. The match that stands out for me is his performance against Dave Harold at the Welsh Open which was near-perfect, whilst his display against Shaun Murphy at the Masters was also one of high quality. Finally the last three frames of his match against Zhang in Sheffield were also vintage as he came back to win in some style.

Otherwise however it was a tough campaign as he was able to reach just one quarter-final and but for some kind draws at the last 32 stage of events, it could have been even worse. Away from the ranking event circuit he fared little better, poor performances in both the Premier League and the Championship League saw him exit both competitions meekly while victory in the final of the Legends of Snooker event in Glenrothes did little to boost his confidence.

So what will 2010/11 bring for Hendry? As he demonstrated last season by consistently winning his opening match of events, while he is in the main far from the dominant player that he was during the 1990’s, he remains good enough to win matches if not now tournaments barring a strange set of circumstances. As suggested previously however, in drawing Marcus Campbell, Andrew Higginson, Zhang Anda, Steve Davis, Matt Selt and Dave Harold in the last 32, he for me largely avoided the most dangerous qualifiers in the draw who may have given him more trouble.

Another problem for Hendry, although not a new one is that because of his indifferent form during the past three or four seasons, his opponents are in the main no longer as in awe of him as they undoubtedly once were when he was regularly winning titles. This was most apparent recently at the fourth PTC event of the new season when he was whitewashed by young compatriot Anthony McGill in what was for me a telling result even so early in this campaign, because of this comment from Ant following the match:

“It was a lot easier playing him here than it would have been at a venue.”

While the new PTC events are a positive move for the sport, I suspect that for someone like Hendry who remains such a scalp within the game, they will not be a good thing as talented young players such as McGill who might otherwise crumble against him at a venue, will have nothing to fear within the cubicles that they are so used to playing in. Just look at the struggles that Ken Doherty endured at the venue during 2008/9 when in exactly that position.

In mitigation for Hendry it was his first ranking match of the new season and his first at the Academy, while McGill had not long since reached the quarter-finals of a previous PTC event at the venue this season. Whether this proves to have been a one-off or becomes a theme remains to be seen but I am doubtful as to how well he will fare away from the cameras at such events.

Which begs the question which some are starting to ask, could Hendry miss out on an appearance at the Crucible for the first time since 1985?

Despite the reservations I have concerning the state of Stephen’s game at the moment, if I were a betting man I would have to say no. Firstly because I believe that Hendry will win matches this season and secondly, perhaps more importantly, the majority of the points to come off of Hendry’s ranking during this season are from the end of the 2008/9 campaign and so will affect Hendry’s end of season ranking more than they will that heading into the Crucible.

Whatever happens though, I do not think that Hendry will hang around for too much longer if his results do not improve from a season in which he was barely part of the supporting cast let alone one of the leading stars…