Hendry thrives on 'freedom'

Snooker's world champion is as hungry as ever after removing title millstone
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AS YOU eat your breakfast today spare a thought for Stuart Bingham. The 23-year-old from Basildon will be making his first appearance at the Embassy World Championship in Sheffield and, while no seed is exactly appetising at 10am on the first day, his draw is the most unpalatable of the lot: Stephen Hendry.

Worse, Bingham faces a player who has a weight removed. Until last year there was always the prospect of an unprecedented seventh Embassy title to prey on the mind of the stone-faced Scot, but that millstone was removed last May when he defeated Mark Williams 18-11 in the final. Hendry is already statistically the greatest modern snooker player in history and Hendry the seventh is likely to become Hendry the eighth or ninth before he finishes.

Indeed, that is the spur. "Winning drives me on," Hendry said. "When the time comes I go to a tournament and think I'm not good enough to win, then I will have to seriously consider what I'm doing. For me winning is everything and I think I have another couple of world titles inside me.

"Getting the seventh meant more than the other six put together. It was a relief because the longer I was stuck on six it would get harder not easier. It created a load of emotions inside me: joy, pride, achievement."

Anyone who has watched Hendry this season would confirm he has looked liberated by moving ahead of Steve Davis and Ray Reardon, with whom he had been bracketed on six world titles. He won the Liverpool Victoria Champions Cup and British Open to take his number of ranking tournament victories to 32 and earlier this month he completed his 500th century break. If the man is getting complacent about being so successful, he is hiding it well.

So well, in fact, he is regarded as the most likely winner on 1 May because Hendry and the Crucible are synonymous. One time he played with a fractured arm, last year his hotel bedroom was broken into and only the ignorance of the thieves led them to overlook the most precious item there, his cue. And did his mind waver on either occasion? Will the baize at Sheffield be green?

From the outside Hendry looks almost as formidable at 31 as he as he did a decade ago, and only he has detected a change that is due to the mind-numbing labour of practising. "Over the last few years, there have been more and more days when I've not had the motivation to work," he said. "It's getting harder as the years go by and I don't think there's anything I can do to stop it.

"There are very few ways to mix things up. They say you never get the same frame twice, but I've been doing it since I was 14. I'm not saying my job is boring or anything like that but if you do the same thing for six hours a day, seven days a week, it will take its toll. By the same token I have to do it if I want to stay at the top. I can't just turn up at tournaments because I won't win a thing. Talent is not enough."

Hendry was beaten by Matthew Stevens in the quarter-finals of the Regal Scottish last week but, as he regarded the tournament as too close to the Crucible for comfort, that could be a blessing and any reluctance to practise will be eradicated by the imminence of the tournament around which he bases his year.

"My standards haven't dropped from the autumn when I was winning trophies," he said. "I've not played badly but doing well in practice is no guarantee of success, because there are so many players out there, six or seven, who are joint favourites for every tournament. A few years ago, I could expect to win three tournaments a season, now you can't take anything for granted."

The motivation today will be avoiding a long trip back to Scotland and constant reminders of his failure. "There's no worse feeling than travelling home from Sheffield without the trophy," he said. "When Jimmy [White] beat me in the first round a few years ago I spent two weeks on a golf course. I didn't go near a television. I'm a terrible loser.

"But at least there's no pressure on me now. If I never win another title I'm happy with what I've achieved. That doesn't mean I don't want to win. I'm as hungry as ever and I know I'm playing well enough to raise my game in time."

So does his opponent today. Legend has it Hendry is at his weakest in the first round, but Bingham may prefer to differ by this evening.