THE YEAR 1990 saw the sudden dethronement of a once all-powerful icon of the 1980s and as Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street, so Steve Davis had met his match in the shape of Stephen Hendry.
It’s a shame they never met in a world final – it was one apiece in the two semi-finals they contested – but Hendry’s victory over Davis in the 1989 UK final was a symbolic moment in the changing of the snooker guard.
Jimmy White had suffered enough misery at the hands of Davis to welcome the arrival of a new boy-king but could not have known what was coming around the corner. His rivalry with Hendry would define an entire era, still one of the best snooker has ever seen.
White had been an inspiration to Hendry. His attacking, eye-catching style of play was in stark contrast to the circuit’s grinders and sloggers. But while Hendry played White’s way, he also possessed the inner steel of Davis. He was not only a winner, he knew he was a winner.
By 1990, that he would secure the World Championship did not seem in doubt. He had won everything else worth winning, including the Masters twice and the UK Championship.
Alex Higgins, that other great shot-maker, had won the world title a few weeks short of his 23rd birthday in 1972, a record he still held going into the first World Championship of the new decade. His Crucible campaign would end in ignominy – a first round defeat, physical assault of an official, rambling drunken press conference and, eventually, a season-long ban. As Higgins provided the drama off table, Hendry and White would do so on it.
They had met two years previously in the second round, a terrific match which White won 13-12. Hendry had been just 19 and in the two years in between had improved still further.
White was already, at this time, carrying the label of ‘best player never to be world champion.’ He was denied by Higgins’s moment of genius in their 1982 semi-final and, despite a valiant recovery, by Davis, 18-16, in the 1984 final.
In ’88, he reached the semis but lost to Terry Griffiths. Still in his twenties, time was on his side but his fans were beginning to wonder when he would seriously challenge for the title again. Little could they have imagined the pain which was to come in the ensuing years.
Hendry, seeded third, beat Alain Robidoux, Tony Meo, Darren Morgan and John Parrott to reach the final. White, the fourth seed, defeated Danny Fowler, John Virgo, Griffiths and, most significantly, Davis, 16-14 in the semi-finals.
The last four had been contested by the Big Four of the era: Davis, Hendry, Parrott and White. There were only 18 centuries in the tournament and between them they made 11, with Hendry responsible for six.
With White having beaten Davis – a finalist for the last seven years – he had every reason to believe victory could be his. Hendry, though, seemed to have been born without self-doubt. He recognised it was his time.
The final carried an average frame time of just 12 minutes. Hendry edged the opening session 4-3 and ended the first day with a century to lead 9-7 overnight.
White’s preparation, by his own candid admission, was not always ideal. Hendry, on the other hand, did everything right. It was this which led many to dislike him. He wore his flaws on the inside whereas White’s were in plain sight – obvious and easy to emphasise with.
And so to the last day, one which both 20-somethings knew would be the most significant of their careers depending on who was ultimately successful.
It was all on the line and in sport, this is where problems start: the prospect that everything you have dreamed of, everything you have worked so hard for is going to be taken away at the last moment. If Hendry had such fears, he kept them hidden. To the outside world he looked like he believed he would win.
And with a four frame burst when the final restarted, he pulled away. Breaks of 66, 104, 58 and 81 made it 13-7 and White was suddenly in trouble.
He pulled it back to 14-10 going into the final session but there would be no comeback. From 16-12 at the final interval, Hendry swiftly wrapped it up, with breaks of 81 and 71.
He was 21 and the youngest ever world snooker champion. It was the start not so much of a run but an empire.
Snooker had not yet fallen down the media’s pecking order and Hendry became a huge star. He was second in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year (these were the days when the public had a free vote, not a shortlist hand-picked by journalists and BBC executives) and set about first emulating Davis’s achievements and then overhauling most of them.
His style was so successful that it became the standard way of playing, ushering in an era of big breaks and attacking snooker.
After the customary slip-up in defending the title, Hendry became king of the Crucible in the 1990s, winning a modern day record of seven world titles. And, of course, in three more finals he denied White: from 14-8 down in 1992, with a session to spare in 1993 and in an agonising (for White) decider in 1994.
Hendry’s record as youngest ever world champion still stands and is likely to for some time. There is no guarantee that a player 21 or under will be playing at the Crucible this year.
Hendry retired at Sheffield in 2012, frustrated that his best game could only be found sporadically, but the circuit misses him.
He was, and remains, a giant of the sport, a relentless winner who shaped the way snooker has been played in the quarter of a century since he first scaled the game’s ultimate summit.
The conclusion of the 1990 world final, as uploaded to YouTube.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.