The vexatious question of when a competitor and champion should call it a day reared its head at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield this week. Snooker's qualifying treadmill, played out against a backdrop of mind-numbing tension, claimed another victim as the 1991 world champion, John Parrott, lost to an 18-year-old Chinese rookie, fell out of the top 64 players that constitute the main tour, and announced that enough was enough.
Unlike boxing, where the perils of going on for too long are laid bare for all to see, in snooker the scars are all mental and the pain at not being what you once were comes from within. It takes a man fully at ease with himself to come to terms with the situation.
Looking on, and seven years Parrott's senior, was Steve Davis – six times a world champion, still ranked in the world's top 25 at the age of 52, and today bidding to secure an astonishing 30th appearance at the final stages of the Betfred.com World Championship at the Crucible Theatre next month.
Davis has seemed a possible candidate for retirement for years, but at 23 in the world rankings he remains in far closer touch with Ronnie O'Sullivan and the elite. As with the good shot that brings the hacker back on to the golf course, Davis is still recording the occasional victories that make it all worthwhile.
Davis said: "I empathise with a lot of what John said last week about the practice being difficult, it's difficult to reinvent your motivation. You want to be professional, but you find it harder. Also, crucially, you get less reward for that practice. For me, at the moment I feel they'll have to take me away kicking and screaming. It's easier to get up for the World Championship, but for the smaller events the drive you once had has evaporated.
"I have cut my practice right down, it's basically a hobby for me now. But if you're dabbling like we are, you need a couple of results here and there. If you're not getting those, you may as well pack up. At the moment, I am."
Over the next three days, the fates of all those desperate for a chance to face an O'Sullivan or a John Higgins at the Crucible in Thursday's draw will be decided in cramped cubicles in the badminton hall at the EIS in Sheffield. For Davis, barring his path to a glorious return will be the Telford journeyman Adrian Gunnell.
For those used to limelight and trophies, the qualifiers can be grim, but Davis insisted: "First and foremost, you can't afford to go in there with the attitude, 'What am I doing here?' All of these players can play, if you're attitude is wrong you will lose.
"Usually great performances come at the end of a tournament when a player gets into stroke. You go along for one qualifying match at a venue, you're not thinking about playing brilliantly, you're thinking about getting through and not making mistakes. A lot of snooker at the qualifiers isn't pretty for that reason, and just because you are higher ranked and have a big reputation, it counts for nothing."
Davis has a strong additional incentive to make it this year, as he and his BBC commentary colleague Dennis Taylor are set to be feted on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of "that" final – the one that saw 18.5 million people stay up until way past midnight to witness an epic 18-17, black-ball victory for the Northern Irishman.
It is one of the supreme ironies of Davis's career that he will be better remembered for that one disastrously overcut last black and some Taylor finger-wagging than for any of his many triumphs at the Crucible and elsewhere – but he has long since recognised the part that final had in shaping his character.
Davis said: "It would be very special to go back as a player on the 25th anniversary of that final, though to be honest, every time I get back there now is special. I'll always remember that one against Dennis, more than my wins there, and evidently so do a lot of others. The one they can recall is the big one I lost. It's understandable, and to be honest it has to go down as my greatest moment in the game. It wasn't a win, or a trophy, but it was a great moment. It had a huge effect on me. If I hadn't ever lifted the trophy again at the Crucible, then who knows, I might have felt differently.
"I probably would have needed lots of psychotherapy about it. As it is, I won it another three times and I can be philosophical, and look back at it fondly and with some pride."
All the fuss over the sport's most captivating climax will take place whether or not Davis can get past Gunnell today. But it is attention that he will savour just that bit more if he could prove that the legend can still play a bit, too.
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