Snooker: Hendry now back on cue: The World Championship starts today in Sheffield where young talent will want to upset the game's elite. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
THE man bending over the table was instantly recognisable, the play stuttering from his cue was not. It was a caricature of Stephen Hendry who was letting opportunities slip and the white ball stray out of position. Snooker's ice blue imperturbable was melting before our eyes.

Errors, which formerly had to be wrenched from him, were spilling out of his frame, leaving an unhappy impression on the mind. This was his last competitive match before his defence of the Embassy World Snooker Championship, except it was not competitive. Hendry was being walloped by Ronnie O'Sullivan in the semi- finals of the British Open.

It continued an unfortunate trend for a man who appeared to have wrapped impenetrable armour around himself when he won his third world title at The Crucible last year. Then he swept through Sheffield like a man who could not conceive of anyone hurting him; today he meets Surinder Gill, with his vulnerability exposed by a series of defeats.

He has not won a tournament since the European Open in Antwerp before Christmas and he has fallen to players who previously would have felt barely fit to share a table in a restaurant with him, never mind the green baize. He has also succumbed to nearly all his close rivals.

These results have jeopardised his place at the top of the world rankings and in the provisional lists he lies second to the man whose record he chases with undisguised enthusiasm, Steve Davis. This can be rectified with a victory in Sheffield, but examination of his cue action at the British Open did not encourage optimism.

There it had left the groove which yielded him eight century breaks in last year's World Championship. Hendry, at his best, has a smoothness of silk but in Plymouth there was a fault that manifested itself in an inability to make the most of scoring opportunities.

When a cue action goes it can take years to rectify, as Davis could testify, so the muscular tension he was displaying was the most worrying symptom of all.

So serious was it that he was whisked away to his home near Edinburgh by helicopter and took four days off the table. For a man whose determination to practise would imply he regards a perfectionist as too slipshod, and with the World Championship imminent, that was about as drastic an action as he could undertake.

'I came back from Plymouth feeling down,' Hendry said, 'and it seemed a good idea to get away from snooker. It seems to have worked. People may or may not have been right when they said they could detect faults, but I'm cueing the ball well now. As smoothly as I've ever done.

'What people tend to forget is that I've suffered slumps in form every season and I've managed to pull myself out of it. Last year I was struggling until I got to the British Open and suddenly everything dropped into place. At the World Championship I felt I played as well as I can. At the time I went to the table I felt so confident.'

Then, his manager, Ian Doyle, described his charge, with considerable justification, as 'the finest snooker player ever' and his language this week was also upbeat. 'Stephen has been practising with other players who will be at The Crucible,' he said, 'and he seems to have got what was wrong with him out of his system. He played Les Dodd (another World Championship player) in match conditions and won 9-2, scoring three century breaks and a few 90s.'

'I still believe I'm the best player in the world,' Hendry said, 'and when I'm at my best nobody can touch me. I just need one or two wins under my belt. I proved it at Sheffield last year that when I hit form I win matches fairly easily.'

The event also acts as a milestone for the prize he places a high value on. Alex Higgins and Jimmy White were his idols in his formative years but, at 25, it is Steve Davis who acts as a spur. 'If I win again this year it will take me to four world titles, which would put Steve's six within range. I'm asked how I keep working, pushing myself, and the main reason is that I'd like to emulate him. It might take a few years, but I'm determined.'

He is scheduled to meet his quarry in the semi-finals, by which time the quality of the remedies will have become apparent. 'I think you'll find Stephen Hendry's death has been over-exaggerated,' Doyle said.

(Photograph omitted)