Snooker: Hendry pursues perfection after going to pot

Stephen Hendry began his quarter-final in the Liverpool Victoria UK Championship against Alan McManus last night with his impregnability seemingly dented. Is the greatest snooker player of all time fading or drawing breath? Guy Hodgson met him at Preston.

Who is this? A snooker player whose cueing action is being criticised by has manager and openly admits he was not working hard enough last season. Ronnie O'Sullivan? The world champion, Ken Doherty, even?

The answer is so surprising you think you have misheard. Stephen Hendry, the man who regards perfection as a slipshod day at the office and who has spent more hours potting balls than anyone, is the subject of the above questioning. It is as if Shakespeare rang up his publisher complaining of writer's block.

Yet Hendry has not looked the same man since losing the world title to Doherty last May. He went out on his first appearance in the Regal Masters and the Grand Prix and even lost 5-0 in an invitation event in China to the man whose record motivates him more than anything, Steve Davis.

From the outside you could be forgiven for thinking the iciest temperament in the sport was thawing. At one time players were beaten before they cued up a ball, battered merely by his reputation. Now there is hope. Or should that be trepidation because players know Hendry is going to find it soon and they do not want to be in the firing line?

The man himself appears wholly relaxed. He arrived at Preston's Guild Hall dressed in an Eskimo-like coat that made him look younger than his 28 years and quietly scotched suggestions of a decline. Nothing too earnest to give the impression of protesting too much but a sober analysis of his current position. Yes, he had been desperately disappointed not to the world title last spring; yes, he was not playing as well as he can; but yes, the form is returning and might just arrive in time for him to win the UK Championship.

"I'm cueing as well as I've ever done in practice," he said. "People are used to seeing me knock hundreds in from all over the place and it's not happened yet. It will though. I'm not a good loser at all.

"People might say `Oh Hendry is not the same player', but if I was gone there's no way I could come back from 8-5 down to beat Anthony Hamilton 9-8 here in Preston. I made two clearances at that point and you just don't do things like that.

"Just as, ordinarily, no one would even think to question his commitment. Hendry has a fixation with his place in the game. He wants to be the best on paper as well as in public opinion and failing to get the seventh world title which would have put him beyond Steve Davis and Ray Reardon rankles. It normally takes two days for him to get over a defeat, losing to Doherty at the Crucible took two weeks. One reason he lost, he says, was because he eased up a bit.

His is a self-imposed regime whereby he is in the snooker club by 10am and only leaves at 5pm with one hour's break in between. Maybe it was because he reached eight finals and won five titles that he felt he could relax, maybe such a successful season left him tired, maybe he had got to a stage where snooker suddenly is just balls rather than an obsession, but his standards slipped.

"It was little things," he conceded. "I wasn't starting until say 10.30, having a longer break, and stopping at 4.45. It sounds trivial but it's like someone going to their job and not doing the hours. Clocking in late, going home early. If you're doing that three or four times a week, it creates a slackness in your mind. Possibly it's due to age, possibly the motivation isn't there. Maybe losing the world championship what I needed.

"You can probably put Ian Doyle's comments into the same category. Hendry's manager since he was a boy said he had noticed a "dramatic" change in his cueing action in the last six months. "He's lost that flowing action," he said. "That's why he hasn't done so well his season and also why he lost the world championship."

Hendry smiled as Doyle's theory was put to him. "Ian says these things to give me a kick up the backside," he countered, "but to be honest I don't pay attention to it. He will try anything if he thinks it'll motivate me.

"I haven't played as well as I usually do and it's just that, nothing to do with my cueing action. I'm not a robot, people expect a certain standard from me and anything less is not acceptable. I've not been knocking in break after break after break but I've no doubts about myself. It'll come.

"I have dedicated my life to the sport. You have to. Two players have done that, Steve Davis and myself, and we've have won all the tournaments for 20 years. Other players haven't, it's as simple as that. You can have all the talent in the world but if you mess about, don't put the work in, you won't quite make the top. It's all about how much ambition you've got."

And how much is left in the Hendry fuel tank? "Lots," he said. "I'm only 28, there's a lot of good snooker inside me. I want to the world No 1 throughout the Nineties. I've already overtaken Steve in terms of being No1 the longest but to get to the year 2,000 would be fantastic."

Most of all, though, his ambition is the seventh world title. "I'll only be satisfied with my career if I get that. I've never been one to say I expect this I'll do that, I leave that to Naseem Hamed." Quietly, he added: "I would be very, very disappointed if I'm not world champion this year."