The most interesting thing to emerge from Barry Hearn’s press conference yesterday was the revelation that Stephen Hendry is willing to return to the circuit in some capacity just two years after retiring.
Inside Snooker’s prediction for the way the World Championship would change was spot on. We pieced this together from a couple of crumbs thrown our way. What Hearn failed to say, presumably because discussions are ongoing, is that there is a good chance the qualifiers will be televised in some form.
The only real losers to the 144-player World Championship are the players ranked 17-32. The top 16 remain seeded through to the Crucible while everyone from 33 down had to play three qualifying matches this year, as they will next.
The answer, then, is to get on the top 16. This is a group not protected but rewarded for being the best players in the game. They are there on merit because of their performances and it is quite right they should appear at the World Championship without having to go through the qualifying melee.
Having former champions in the first round is a nice touch, although I suspect not many will play. Topping up the field using amateur players from around the world may help stimulate international events used as qualifiers for the qualifiers.
The wildcard system to be used to fill fields where there are not full entries is a little convoluted but it will basically mean Steve Davis, Hendry and, if he falls off the tour, Jimmy White will be able to play in tournaments in which not all main tour players enter.
Good. They will do more commercially for snooker than filling up the places with people not good enough to get through Q School, as currently happens.
Snooker has traditionally been bad at utilising the greats of the game. Anyone who saw Davis do his trick-shots routine at the Tempodrom a couple of years ago will know just what an asset he would be at venues. I’ve long thought these legends could be given an official ambassadorial role within the game and at tournaments.
But Hendry’s involvement is intriguing. The great man himself is being coy about it all, but has suggested he would be prepared to play in some tournaments.
Hendry retired with great dignity at the 2012 World Championship. By then he had had enough. His game was still strong – he made a maximum after all – and he beat most players below him in the rankings, just not that many above him. Having produced such an incredible standard at his peak, Hendry was disillusioned at not being able to get close to it often enough to find playing on the circuit satisfying. He also landed a contract to promote Chinese pool which would have meant a difficult schedule juggling that and his playing career.
To use a rock n roll analogy: Hendry is The Beatles and Davis the Rolling Stones.
Hendry did it all – and I mean all – at an incredibly young age before burning out. Davis has just kept on going, sometimes leading to people saying he should pack it in, even though in the end they are pleased to see him.
Hendry may have been getting fed up of snooker but he had a routine for years of practising/playing/personal appearances. He travelled the world and enjoyed the thrill of competition. He enjoyed winning. When he lost it made him more determined to win.
It is hard to just give all of that up and walk away. So many sportsmen and women have made comebacks, the ties with their old life just too strong to sever.
Even the Beatles came back, 20 years ago releasing two new singles using old John Lennon recordings.
Hendry may well feel that there is something inside which may come out in the odd tournament, the old glory returning. It may be fleeting, it may not come at all, but it seems he is willing to give it a go.
Many would tell him not to, that he had a great career but it is over. But they most probably have never stood on the Crucible stage, on top of the snooker world.
One you’ve done that, the lure of more, however difficult, however unlikely, must be hard to resist.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.