Old habits die hard. With a cue in his hand for a scythe, Stephen Hendry returned from the dead on Monday night as a sort of green baize grim reaper. Having walked away from the sport he once lorded it over nine years ago, disillusioned with the deteriorating condition of his once pristine 1990s world title-winning game, the Scotsman emerged from beyond the baize almost a decade later still unsatisfied with the general health of his play. Yet still streetwise enough to haunt Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White, who could not have struggled more if he had been trying to pot balls through molasses.
On a night high on nostalgia, this all had a familiar feel of foreboding as White’s evening descended into a state of torpor in a 6-3 defeat that became, for poor old Jimmy at least, a nightmarish tragicomedy in the dangers of sporting self-harm. He did not try to offer up any excuses in his final analysis.
"It was a poor game. Stephen didn’t have a lot to beat. I lost focus," said White. "I think I wore myself out and overdid it with the practice. I have been struggling. In hindsight, I should have rested more.
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You get embarrassed when you play that bad. I feel exhausted.
While Hendry was hardly a model of consistency in a tension-ridden contest, the Whirlwind, twitchy and tormented from the outset, looked all at sea at the English Institute of Sport in a match between two snooker institutions, with 46 ranking titles and over 1,000 competitive centuries between them, that produced as familiar an ending on Easter Monday as The Greatest Story Ever Told.
"In all fairness, even though the standard is crap, I’m enjoying watching my childhood hero and my buddy lock horns again," said the watching three-times world champion Mark Williams as he came out in sympathy on social media.
Less than three miles from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, this was a million miles away from their 1990s pomp when the sport’s richest event became like their personal World Series. Hendry famously defeated White four times between 1990 and 1994 in world finals and a semi-final in 1995. Hendry’s hex has not been lifted with White seemingly cursed for eternity in what might well be their final meeting as professionals on the main tour.
Despite the celebrated six-times perennial World Championship runner-up being a warm favourite a quarter of a century on, nothing much has changed between the pair when push comes to shove. Pressure still seems to be a far greater burden for the Londoner.
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“I’m not happy about the way we both played, I had hoped we would both play well and it would be a great match,” said Hendry. “There was a lot of tension, Jimmy looked bang under it.”
Ranked 83 in the world, White needed to win his most meaningful match of the campaign to ensure a future on the main World Snooker Tour next season, but must now rely on another invitational wild card from WST chairman Barry Hearn to extend his playing privileges or face a fraught trip to Q School (qualifying schools) to regain access to the main circuit. Unsurprisingly, the nature of the error-strewn defeat left him sporting a hangdog look.
I’ll wait and see how results go before I make a decision about my future. That was a horrendous performance from me. I'm not thinking of not playing, I'm just trying to work out and have some clue of how bad I played tonight.
Hearn will ensure White’s career goes beyond the age of 60 if he wants it badly enough, but that will not make this defeat any easier to stomach if he decides to watch the lowlights any time soon. Professional pride dictates this won’t make for easy viewing.
“I was trying to relax and enjoy the occasion,” commented Hendry, who next faces world number 82 Xu Si on Wednesday needing three more wins to qualify for the Crucible. “The result probably meant more to Jimmy than it did to me.
When you look back at the finals we played, we both had natural, flowing cue actions. Tonight it was stuttered and staggered, our average shot time felt like about four minutes.
Unlike Hendry, White has never ceased playing the sport his life revolves around since turning professional in 1980, but the advantage of being battle-hardened at the age of 58 against a figure contesting only his second competitive outing since losing 13-2 to Stephen Maguire in the 2012 Crucible quarter-finals means little when you lack consistency.
'What about that!' - White stays in Hendry clash with fine fluke on the yellow
It became apparent early in the evening that this duel, the 60th between the duo since 1986, would be a game of chance that benefited Hendry in groping his way out of the darkness of the practice room. It was engrossing and engaging because it was error-strewn, full of miscalculations and the odd miscue, a bit like McEnroe and Bjorg trying to rediscover their chemistry four decades on with wooden rackets.
The first three frames of the evening took around 90 minutes to complete with Hendry somehow winning the third frame requiring a snooker with only two balls left on the table. White missed the pink before Hendry made the highest break of the frame with a contribution of only seven in slotting the winning black to lead 2-1.
At that stage, you wondered if they might need to dig out some change to keep the table lights on.
“You are in for a long night,” commented a ruefully smiling Hendry to referee Leo Scullion, leading 2-1.
There are not many sports around the globe where the two main protagonists can still compete as professionals at the elite level over a quarter of a century after their pomp. You probably wouldn’t pay to watch Sergey Bubka have another pop at the pole vault or Michael Johnson wear his gold running spikes for another 400m dash these days, but snooker adds longevity to a career because there is no physical impediment to potting balls. Or at least that is the theory.
The mental turmoil is another thing. Internal bruising creates lasting scarring for snooker players attempting to freeze time, if not turn back the clock. For White, the torture was apparent as he seemed likelier to launch his cue across the room than use it to score meaningfully.
Both men seemed to be making more visits to the table than Henry the eighth rolling the dice, but Hendry always seemed the likelier victor, if slightly less nervier combatant. A run of 53 saw him lead 3-1 before he eked out a 4-1 advantage by potting the necessary balls at the finale of a fairly rancid fifth frame.
White produced a relatively rapid run of 58 in the fifth frame, but a bad miss on a red proved pivotal as Hendry responded with a frame-winning 66 to hold a 5-1 lead and all the aces.
Another 58 gave White the seventh frame before he scrambled over the line to claim a tepid eighth frame, but Hendry was the dominant force in the ninth as a closing 52 concluded his business for the evening just before midnight and condemned White to the snooker hinterland. For the time being at least.
“The only time when I found some rhythm was when I made the clearance to go 5-1. Something switched on inside me, that instinct to pinch a frame,” said Hendry after winning his 100th match in the competition since his first qualifier against fellow Scot Bert Demarco in 1986. “And I won a frame when I needed a snooker, that’s a collector’s item!
So there were a couple of little highlights and I’ve got to be happy with the win. The rhythm I have on the practice table, I’m not taking into the match yet. There were only a handful of shots I hit well tonight.
A truly damning indictment. A handful of shots, but for White a hatful of sorrow. Twas ever thus.
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