Snooker: Decline, fall or hiccup?

Clive Everton traces the travails of a champion in the doldrums; Hendry is determined to claim his place in snooker history as Higgins opens his world title defence
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The Independent Online
FOR STEPHEN HENDRY the fight to regain the Embassy world snooker championship started in late summer last year when he began to practise and prepare for a campaign focused on what he regards as his last major ambition.

Hendry has won six world titles in the Nineties, as Steve Davis did in the Eighties and Ray Reardon in the Seventies. Now the 30-year-old Scot is desperate to hold aloft the trophy on 3 May to provide confirmation - beyond the realms of mere opinion - not only that he is the player of the decade, but rather that he is the player of snooker's modern era.

But he has had a problem. Ken Doherty beat him in the 1998 final and his astonishing 10-4 first-round defeat by Jimmy White last year cost him the No 1 ranking he had held since he became the youngest ever champion way back in 1990. The conundrum for the game is simple: have we been witnessing the start of an irreversible decline or simply an interruption of his dominance?

The rankings say that week in week out, for the last two years, John Higgins has been the best player in the world, but Hendry, even after some spectacular reverses, is still No 2, and the immediate question is not, "Who is best?" but "Who is best over the next two weeks?"

Motivation is no problem for the big occasion. Adrenalin takes care of that. But each year the will has to be there to undertake the relentless grind of practice, travel, hotels and just hanging about on the circuit of tournaments which are milestones on the road to Sheffield.

Along that road this season, Hendry has gone deep into the valley of doubt and also ascended some peaks of elation - winning the Scottish Open, his first title in Britain for two years, and the Irish Masters final against Stephen Lee from four down with five to play. During that time the technique he has taken for granted for so long has suddenly had to be worked upon. His inconsistency has irritated and baffled him, but he has done everything mortal man can do to be ready. This is the story of his long battle...

Regal Scottish Masters

Quarter-final: Bt Peter Ebdon 6-5. Semi-final: L to John Higgins 6-5.

Grand Prix

Rd 1: Bt Ian McCulloch 5-1. Rd 2: Bt David Roe 5-0. Rd 3: Bt Brian Morgan 5-3. QF: L to Dave Harold 5-4.

Hendry's verdict: "If I keep missing them like that I won't be winning any more titles, that's for sure. I couldn't have asked for the balls to be better placed [in the decider] and I messed it up."

UK Championship

Rd 1: Lost to Marcus Campbell 9-0.

Verdict: "I'll have seriously to think where I go from here. This has been building up for ages. There are one or two technical things which need tweaking, but basically it's all about attitude. My confidence has drained and drained over the last couple of years and it was inevitable sooner or later that something like this was going to happen. It's not any fun when you get over a pot and know before you address the cue ball that you're going to miss."

Rothmans Malta GP

QF: Bt Joe Grech 5-1. SF: Bt Alex Borg 6-2. F: Bt Ken Doherty 7-6.

Verdict: "There's still a lot to be put right and it's important not to forget that Ken let me off the hook, but after the UK I must admit I could not have wished for anything better."

German Masters

QF: Lost to Tony Drago 5-2.

Verdict: "When I've got no confidence I hate playing because everything seems so difficult. I feel terrible about my game. There's no getting away from it."

Irish Open

Rd 1: Bt Joe Perry 5-1. Rd 2: Bt Paul Hunter 5-3. QF: L to Tony Drago 5-4.

Verdict: Unspeakably disappointed. He was monosyllabic at his press conference.

Welsh Open

Rd 1: Bt David Roe 5-1. Rd 2: Bt Darren Clarke 5-2. Rd 3: Bt Matthew Stevens 5-4. QF: Bt Anthony Hamilton 5-2. SF: Bt Joe Swail 5-2. F: L to Mark Williams 9-8.

Verdict: "The balls I missed towards the end were pathetic and there's no excuse. I never used to miss in that situation. Now I miss when it matters a lot. I watched Steve Davis when his domination was beginning to fade and he started to fail on important shots. That was the start of his downfall and I just hope the same problem isn't going to be the start of mine."

B&H Masters

Rd 2: L to Tony Drago 6-4.

Verdict: Asked if this setback was disappointing he replied grimly: "I'm getting used to it."

Scottish Open

Rd 1: Bt Lee Richardson 5-0. Rd 2: Bt Nick Pearce 5-2. Rd 3: Bt Brian Morgan 5-3. QF: Bt Alan McManus 5-1. SF: Bt John Higgins 6-5. F: Bt Graeme Dott 9-1.

Verdict: "This seems like my first title, it's been so long a wait. When you're used to winning regularly and suddenly you stop, it's difficult not to wonder why and your confidence takes a battering. This makes me feel better, I can tell you."

Liverpool Victoria

QF: Lost to Jimmy White 5-2.

Verdict: "Jimmy played OK, but my concentration wasn't very good. I made elementary mistakes at vital moments."

Thailand Masters

Rd 1: Bt Paul Davies 5-4. Rd 2: Bt Alain Robidoux 5-1. QF: L to Mark Williams 5-2.

Verdict: "There's never anything to worry about when you lose to Mark. My game's in perfectly good working order, but he makes things happen out there like I used to at my best."

China International

Rd 1: Bt Anthony Davies 5-2. Rd 2: Bt Steve Davis 5-4. QF: Bt John Parrott 5-2. SF: L to Billy Snaddon 6-2.

Verdict: "I've still not got the consistency I need and my cue action isn't working well. I'm getting down over balls and I'm not fancying potting them. I'm playing two or three good matches, then up pops a bad one. There's still a lot of work to be done before Sheffield."

B&H Irish Masters

QF: Bt Steve Davis 6-3. SF: Bt Peter Ebdon 6-4. F: Bt Stephen Lee 9-8.

Verdict: "It's an important result for me, especially the way it was achieved [coming back from 8-4 down]. It wasn't a great performance from start to finish but it was towards the end. I'm a lot happier with my game and this couldn't have come at a better time."

British Open

Rd 1: Bt Jonathan Birch 5-0. Rd 2: Bt Graeme Dott 5-2. Rd 3: Bt Mark King 5-4. QF: L to Anthony Hamilton 5-3.

Verdict: "Technically, my game is fine. The only thing I am worried about at the moment is that my concentration is inclined to drift in and out. I'll need to put that right for the longer matches at Sheffield."

NEW KIDS ON THE BLACK: FIVE YOUNG CUE MASTERS READY FOR THE CRUCIBLE TEST

PAUL HUNTER

England

Age: 20. Ranking: 24

Provisional ranking this season: 13

Welsh Open semi-finalist at 17, champion at 19. "He's got the temperament and he's got the game," was Stephen Hendry's analysis when he first played him three years ago. A very dangerous first opponent for Hendry this time even though he has not been on his very best form lately.

NICK WALKER

England

Age: 21. Ranking 71 (68)

Beat Dennis Taylor on his way to qualifying for Sheffield for the first time and survived a big scare in penultimate qualifying round, leading Rod Lawler 9-0 before scraping home 10-8. Went on to achieve career best by reaching last 16 of British Open earlier this month. Supplements his income by delivering bed quilts.

MARCO FU

Hong Kong

Age: 21. Ranking 377 (39)

Hong Kong's first world-class player. 1997 World Amateur and World Under- 21 champion and in first tournament of first full season reached the final of the grand prix in October. First-round match with Thailand's James Wattana, whose status as Asia's top player he is threatening, is attracting enormous Asian media interest.

LEO FERNANDEZ

Republic of Ireland

Age: 21. Ranking: 155 (101)

Fernandez has an Irish mother, a Kenyan father and lives in Balham. Learned to play at Zan's in Tooting, Jimmy White's old stamping ground. Has already improved 50 places this season and whatever happens in the first round against Ronnie O'Sullivan he will still push inside the top 100 when the Crucible points are added.

JOHN LARDNER

Scotland

Age: 26. Ranking: 96 (91)

Had three very good qualifying wins over Neal Foulds 10-5, Quinten Hann 10-8 and Martin Clark 10-2, a run which included two promising 147 attempts, one off 12 red-blacks, the other off 13. Faces tough tussle against Stephen Lee if the No 9 seed has recovered from freak shoulder injury answering bedside phone.

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