Snooker: World in grip of Hendry's hegemony: White's return to darkness is induced by a Scottish potter on the brink of perfection

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The Independent Online
TO THINK a month ago Stephen Hendry was being categorised as a spent force. In the wake of his third world championship yesterday he was being placed in a pigeon hole again: possibly the best snooker player ever.

To evaluate the past with the present is invidious at the best of times but snooker's elite was indulging itself. Ted Lowe, the voice of the game, was unequivocal in his support for Joe Davis; Ray Edmonds, Lowe's fellow BBC commentator, described Hendry's performance at The Crucible over 17 days as the finest he had seen.

The facts favoured Edmonds. Hendry recorded eight centuries during the championships to extend his record for the event to 36. At the same time the 24-year-old from South Queensferry, Edinburgh, became the most prolific break-builder of all time, surpassing Steve Davis's record of 203 centuries during his 18-5 demolition of Jimmy White in the final and pushing the tally to 206.

To put that in perspective, Hendry has amassed that points mountain in eight seasons, Davis has been a professional for 15 years. Pockets, too, are smaller than they were a decade ago.

The statistics go on and on. The pounds 175,000 he won in Sheffield pushed his tournament earnings beyond pounds 3m; the victory was his 42nd; he has now plucked four titles in a season he was describing as a disaster last month. Hendry is snooker's man of the 1990s, just as Steve Davis dominated the 1980s.

'It's amazing how things have turned round,' Hendry said. 'Before Christmas my No 1 spot looked in jeopardy and I was just concerned about getting my game into shape. If anyone had asked me then if I could retain the title I would have laughed at them. Now I wish the season would go on and on.'

The catalyst for Hendry's resurgence which began with his winning the International Open in Plymouth three weeks ago, indeed the impetus for his whole career, is Steve Davis. Hendry eyes the six-times world champion's achievements with undisguised envy. He wants to surpass his record, he craves the reputation as the best. When Davis beat him twice earlier this year it spurred him into action.

'That helped me,' he said. 'Steve was talking about becoming the No 1 again and I realised I had to do something quickly. I thought 'I'm No 1, it's up to me to do something about it'. I spent hours on the practice table. It was just a case of hard work.'

The improvement was phenomenal. A few weeks earlier Hendry had described his safety play as being at its worst state since he was 14. In Plymouth he was rock solid in defence and devastating in attack, scoring 10 centuries. At the world championship he never looked even remotely likely to be denied his third title. Opponents made nervy by the punishment they believed they would suffer, made a mistake and Hendry would plunder.

The first frame of the final was a classic example. White was a little short with his opening shot, nine minutes later Hendry had cleared the table with a 136 break. White had made one slight error and suffered disproportionately.

As to the future Hendry concurs with Davis in believing standards will rise. 'Not particularly at the top,' Davis said, 'but in terms of breadth. I think there are probably four players now who are just that bit better than the rest and I believe that will extend to eight and 16. It will become harder for one man to dominate.'

Hendry, with three world titles in four years, said: 'I want to aim for Davis's six championships but I don't believe I'll get them as quickly. I think it will take six or seven years at least. That's if I get there.'

In sense he may be there already. Joe Davis's 15 world titles were acquired in a different age with far fewer players and even Steve Davis's titles belong to an era very different to today's. Davis believes he is a better player now than during his hegemony of 1981-89 and is short of Hendry's standard; White, Hendry's most consistent rival at world championship level, gained only five of the last 42 frames he has contested with the Scot.

'I may be biased,' Ian Doyle, Hendry's manager, said, 'but I believe Stephen is the finest snooker player ever.' After Hendry's brush with perfection in Sheffield, few would argue.