Gibraltar Open: ‘Stephen Hendry wants to prove he's the greatest’ – Matthew Selt on King's return
Stephen Hendry returns to competitive action after a nine-year absence against close friend Matthew Selt. The pair meet in the first round of the Gibraltar Open LIVE on Eurosport at 7pm on Tuesday as seven-times world champion Hendry attempts to recapture former glories. For Selt, the friends reunited clash represents the biggest match of his career.
Stephen Hendry takes a selfie during a trip to the Masters.
Published 01/03/2021 at 12:56 GMT | Updated 02/03/2021 at 07:08 GMT
“He’s only got one friend in the world, and that's me," jokes a mirthful Matthew Selt ahead of meeting his old mucker Stephen Hendry in snooker’s most eagerly anticipated comeback story of this or any other year.
Selt’s sportive mood will give way to a rather more serious outlook on Tuesday night when he confronts the seven-times world champion over the best of seven frames at the Gibraltar Open. Hendry is brimming with anticipation more than expectation. Yet when you boast such a glorious back catalogue, there is always room to dream. Daring to dream is no bad thing when you once regally lorded it over the old green baize's land of hope and glory and then some.
Despite sport being forced behind closed doors due to the pandemic, the man dubbed the 'King of the Crucible' for his heavy-scoring domination of snooker in the 1990s returns with more fanfare in Milton Keynes than Elvis Presley at Burbank in 1968.
While the King of Rock and Roll spent seven years away from public performance, the king of pot and roll will bring an end to a nine-year absence that will greeted by snooker diehards with more expectancy than John Virgo doing his Hurricane Higgins impression back in the day.
Stephen Hendry returns to action after a nine-year absence.
Image credit: Eurosport
“If I start to play well then the expectation will build and I’ll want to win more,” commented Hendry.
One of the reasons I retired was because I couldn’t win any more. I have to control those expectations. I’m hitting the ball better in practice than I was when I retired.
He admitted it was a "relief" to retire as his once pristine game descended into a state of torpor with mechanical and psychological failure rendering him a yesterday's man before it was time to let go.
Being forced to qualify for the Crucible in the death throes of his career was the final ignominy.
“It felt degrading. That’s no disrespect to other players, but I had owned the Crucible for a decade with seven wins and two finals," he said.
'SNOOKER WORLD WILL TUNE IN'
At the age of 52, he sports a telling beard these days, but is hardly an elder statesmen in a sport that has just witnessed the evergreen John Higgins produce the grandest form of his life in rampaging to the Players Championship with an astonishing 10-3 final filleting of the world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan. Both men seem to just be getting warmed up in their 40s.
“The whole snooker world will tune in,” said Higgins of Hendry. “Who knows what will happen? It will be interesting.
Stephen is obviously excited. It’s the worst possible match for Matt Selt because they are mates and I imagine there will be a lot of banter and text messages beforehand.
Selt – the world number 25 from Romford – speaks every day to Hendry having become friends with the Scot during the 2009 Shanghai Masters. Being part of the king's comeback special represents the biggest showpiece occasion of his career.
“When the draw came out, I thought: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me’,” he told Eurosport. “It’s the first time in a long time I’ve been really excited about playing a game.
“During this lockdown, we’ve been very lucky to still be able to play, but every tournament feels like the same.
In my career, which has been pretty long and not pretty lucrative, it’s probably the biggest match I’ve played.
“To be able to have that opportunity to be part of something so special. I feel very lucky to be playing this match.”
Selt last locked cues with Hendry in the last 16 of the 2011 Australian Open in Victoria when he enjoyed a 5-1 win in the last 16, but could have been the last man to face him before he headed off to his potting shed the first time around.
“I played him in Bendigo a decade ago, but I should have been the last player to play him before he retired,” he said. “I lost to Yu Delu at the 2012 World Championship before Stephen beat him to qualify for Sheffield.
“If I had beaten Yu Delu it would have been me and Stephen in the last round of qualifiers for the worlds.
Back then and being friends with him, I always wanted to be the player who played him in his last match because the opportunity was there. But to be the person who plays him in his first match back is just as special.
“It’s all very weird that the draw has come out like this. It was 127-1 that we played each other.
“It’s a very strange coincidence, but one we will both be grateful for.
“It’s good for him to come back and play someone he knows so well. Hopefully he can settle and get into some sort of rhythm.
I’d rather we have a good game and he won rather than he played terrible and I win. That’s not what I want to happen.
'SNOOKER WILL BENEFIT'
Hendry has been working with Stephen Feeney, the much-lauded coach whose SightRight method helped Mark Williams enjoy a third world title in 2018 and Ronnie O’Sullivan career to a sixth victory last year.
Selt credits the work he has done with Feeney as key to his solitary ranking event success at the 2019 Indian Open in Kochi where he defeated John Higgins 4-2 in the semi-finals before a 5-3 win over Lyu Haotian in the final.
Selt feels Hendry would not be returning without hope having drifted into the abyss mourning the loss of the consistency that delivered seven world victories in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1999.
Mark Selby and Matt Selt enjoy a coaching session in China.
Image credit: Eurosport
As he chewed on a piece of gum after his gutting farewell loss to Maguire, a weight seemed to have been visibly lifted from the shoulders that revelled in 36 ranking titles, earned over eight million quid in prize money, became the sport's youngest world champion at 21 and amassed 775 century breaks since 1985, a time when he was dubbed 'The Wonder Bairn'.
This is a bloke who spent a record eight years as number one between 1990 and 1998 before returning to the summit in 2007 despite steady decline set against the suffocating benchmark of his own success story. The mind plays tricks on the greatest of champions.
"I'm a winner and I still hate to see other players winning," Hendry said.
I still believe the World Championship belongs to me.
During the era of Thatcherism in the UK, single-mindedness was viewed as a virtue, but seemed especially ripe for the solitary nature of snooker, a game the UK loved more than bangers and mash with their Sunday roast.
Hendry's six Masters and five UK titles were all claimed between 1989 and 1996 before the trophies dried up as quickly as the tsunami of table time had gripped the sport, ripping away Steve Davis' decade of supremacy in the 1980s. Hendry dissolved quicker than Davis because he could no longer accept the end of his dynasty.
Time spent away from the sport has allowed him to focus on business interests in China and regular commissions as a TV pundit, but the Edinburgh-born icon is keen to scratch the itch of unfinished business.
“He retired for a reason and that reason must have changed because he feels like he can come back and play,” opined Selt.
Obviously working with Stephen Feeney has helped. Without working with Steve, I wouldn’t have won the Indian Open.
"I have a lot of respect and credit for Steve. I still work with him now. I’m pretty sure Steve would have helped Stephen get back to some sort of level that allows him to participate and compete on the tour.
“It will be interesting to see what work he has done with Feeney to see how he plays.”
'THE RIGHT CALL'
Selt recalls raising the subject with Hendry a decade ago to detect if he was on the verge of quitting having last lifted a ranking trophy at the 2005 Malta Cup.
“I did ask him during that season if he was going to retire and he denied it before retiring,” said Selt. “You could tell he wasn’t as sharp as he had been throughout his career.
“The questions were there if he was still enjoying it. Obviously that year when he did retire, he clearly wasn’t. You could tell he wasn’t enjoying it with some of the balls he was missing.
I think he made the right call back then. Let’s hope he’s made the right call coming back out of retirement because if he can compete and play to a certain standard, everyone in the snooker world will benefit from his return to the tour.
“I don’t remember Stephen at his peak performance so I can’t comment on what he was like.
“But for someone who dominated the game for so long, he wasn’t putting in the performances he was used to.
“I suppose when you get to that kind of level, it is hard continuing knowing you aren’t reaching the standard you once did.
That’s why I’ve got ultimate respect for him coming out to try again.
Hendry has not revealed what has inspired his decision after joining Jimmy 'Whirlwind' White, the man he defeated in four world finals, and 1997 world champion Ken Doherty in accepting a two-year wildcard from WST chairman Barry Hearn to compete on the main circuit mainly for services to snooker.
Like Paul Newman as Fast Eddy Felson in The Color of Money, the public loves the return of an old hustler plotting a route back to the summit in any sport.
Sugar Ray Leonard completed one of sport's most memorable comebacks when he outpointed Marvin Hagler in their world middleweight title fight in 1987 having fought just one since retiring in 1982, but Leonard also pointed out that: "you just don't heal that easy unless you're young".
Selt has his own views about Hendry's motivation having said that he is again keen to return to the Crucible.
“He hasn’t given me a reason. I think he just misses competing at the highest level and misses playing in front of the crowd,” said Selt.
“I think that’s why he has delayed his return. Although we are very lucky to be playing at Milton Keynes, there isn’t much of a buzz playing there without any fans.
“I think he wants to get some matches under his belt before the World Championship, an event he has won more than anybody else.
So for him, he’ll always be trying to chase the stuff he’s done before in that tournament.
'CHANGED THE FACE OF THE GAME'
Hendry was a potting pioneer in altering the mood of the cautious 1980s to a more cavalier 1990s through to a modern era that witnesses buccaneering characters whose idea of a shot to nothing is always a shot for something.
Hendry's idea of a safety shot was opting not to open the pack of reds at the first opportunity. His fearless approach has become the study guide to playing the modern way.
Selt feels that is illustrated by world number 81 Jordan Brown’s rise to prominence at the Welsh Open that included victories over Mark Selby, Stephen Maguire and O’Sullivan in the final.
“Stephen changed the face of the game to be super attacking and now it’s super attacking across the board,” explained Selt. "It has changed. Everyone plays the game the way he played the game. These early rounds, people don’t care.
“It’s all-out attack. If they pot balls, they win, if they don’t, they lose. It’s the people that pot them most consistently who win.
Stephen Hendry celebrates victory in 1994.
Image credit: Eurosport
"It’s plain to see the standard of people outside the top 32 is a lot, lot higher than it has ever been.
“It’s questionable if it is higher at the top four or top eight. When would you have got a bloke like the world number 81 Jordan Brown beating everybody to win the Welsh Open?
“It would never have happened years ago.”
'Get in there!' - The moment Brown shocked O'Sullivan to win Welsh Open title
'PROVE HE IS THE GREATEST'
Despite being close friends with Hendry, Selt’s snooker idol is another Scot in the form of Higgins, who managed to complete a 6-0 win over Mark Selby in the quarter-finals of his victorious Players Championship campaign with his opponent potting only three balls for seven points.
“That match against Selby was frightening. I’ve never hidden the fact that John Higgins is my snooker hero,” he said.
“To see him still play like that, gives me great pleasure to watch. He’s a phenomenal player.
“People go on about age, but does it really matter? They’re proving it’s just a number and are getting on with it.
“You are either really, really good or you are good. They are the greats and they will always be the greats until they put their cues down.
I think Stephen must miss being the greatest. I think that is one of the reasons why he is coming back because he wants to prove he is the greatest.
“I hope he can prove that, but it remains to be seen.”
Selt has faced O’Sullivan, Hendry, Higgins, Steve Davis and Judd Trump at various stages of their respective careers, but feels the GOAT debate remains a live issue.
“People have different theories on who is the greatest,” he said. "Hendry has won the most world titles and Ronnie is the only player who can really eclipse that.
“I’m not a fence-sitter, but the older I become I do more fence sitting.
I think Ronnie is the greatest player to play the game. I think Hendry is the greatest winner.
"Higgins is my favourite so it’s a bit of a boring answer really from me. I just think the way Higgins conducts himself is different class.
“If they were all in a room together, he’s [Higgins] the only one you wouldn’t know what he won because he is just that down to earth.
I've always had respect for him. Ronnie scares the living s**t out of me. When I play him, I just can’t breathe.
Selt recalls being a nervous wreck when he first met Hendry in the last 32 of the World Grand Prix in Glasgow in 2009.
“It was an absolute honour. He beat me 5-2. I couldn’t walk around the table without my legs shaking.
“I still remember it vividly. Just being able to play these great players is a great honour and why I started playing snooker in the first place.”
'STAND UP TO THE PRESSURE'
Selt has earned over £680,000 in prize money from a career that has spanned 19 years. He has twice qualified for the World Championship and is the only man in history to make five centuries in six frames in his 6-0 walloping of Amine Amiri in the first round of the UK Championship in December.
“I’ve got a little bit of grievance about that. They say I’m the third person to make five centuries in a best-of-11 match,” he commented. "I am the only player in history to make five centuries in six frames. It has never happened before.
“In my next match, Lu Ning missed a yellow off the spot for five in a row.
“I’m very proud of some of the stuff I’ve achieved. I think I’ve had three centuries on the spin five times in my career.
“For someone who hasn’t done much in the game, which I haven’t at this point, I’ve got some good stuff going on in places.
Stephen Hendry and Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins in 1987.
Image credit: Eurosport
“I am playing pretty well and I’m looking forward to seeing how I compete in what is going to be the biggest match I’ve ever played in.
“I’m looking forward to see how I personally stand up to the pressure.”
The bloke in the other chair might be feeling it more. No other snooker great has been away for so long before reigniting their inner flame. It is uncharted territory for Hendry, but the return of the king after nine years in exile creates its own elixir. Will it be a potion to bring back the heady afterglow of his youthful yesteryear?
Far from the madding crowd, and far from his potting pomp, Stephen Hendry again commands everybody's attention.