Snooker: Hendry the assassin sharpens sights: Guy Hodgson reports from Sheffield

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The Independent Online
THE ice-blue eyes needed barely to blink. Stephen Hendry was at work for 17 minutes yesterday but in that short time the vision of a third Embassy World Snooker Championship came more sharply into focus. He is in the quarter-finals having dropped just five frames.

It was a cameo yesterday, the true toil of defeating the world No 16 Darren Morgan completed the day before, but it was classic Hendry nevertheless. His opponent made one real error and the champion swooped on it with bloodthirsty relish. A clearance of 39 and the one frame he needed for a 13-4 victory had been accomplished.

Hendry is happy with his form, going about his work with the minimum of fuss and a ruthless efficiency. No wonder people liken the 24-year-old Scot to an assassin when he is on a snooker table. It needs only the slightest slip to let him in among the balls and Morgan's yesterday was to insist that Hendry played again after the champion had failed to hit a red in an escape from a snooker.

'I was surprised Darren put me back in,' he said, 'because it was a shot to nothing. Even if I'd missed, the cue ball was always going back to baulk.' A red was potted and, to all intents and purposes, so was Morgan.

There has been a change in Hendry recently. Or rather a reversion to type. A few months ago he lost heavily to Steve Davis in the European Open and said his safety play was in its worst condition since he was 14. He had not won a tournament since taking 10 successive frames to defeat Jimmy White in last year's world championship final. He was playing well in practice, he said, but they all cling on to that on the slide.

'Losing twice to Steve helped,' he said in reference to another defeat by Davis in the Irish Masters. 'Every time I've lost to him in the past I've come back a better player. I heard him say that he believed he could become the No 1 player and I thought, 'I'm No 1, I'm the world champion. It's up to me to make sure I stay there.' '

It was Hendry's concentration that was dragging him down, letting his mind slip at crucial moments. He launched into a furious spell of practice, working on his safety play but, more importantly, retraining his brain. In Plymouth, at the International Open, he broke the record for century breaks in a tournament with 10 and defeated Davis, the man he says he most admires, in the final.

'He was the best player in the world in the Eighties,' Hendry said. 'He set the standards for me to aim at. It's his records I want to beat.' Davis, whom Morgan for one believes will be the champion in eight days' time, has six world titles to Hendry's two.

If the matches go to form, and Davis has by no means got an easy second-round opponent in Alan McManus, the two men will meet in the semi-finals. Davis has had a renaissance himself, the quality of which has raised Hendry's eyebrows. 'I'm surprised at how he's played. He's playing a more attacking game, which he needed to do. It's no coincidence that of the top four or five players only Alan McManus plays the percentages. These days you have to go for your shots if you want to stay up there.'

Nigel Bond would love to have the problem. He has never been there, although, as the No 9 seed, he has his aspirations. Yesterday, certainly, the concept of attack was not lost on him as he won four successive frames to defeat Gary Wilkinson, the man ranked immediately above him.

He now faces a more searching interrogation, a match with Hendry.