It was a breezy Easter Monday evening when snooker went back in time. As Stephen Hendry and Jimmy White smiled aged smiles and bumped elbows ahead of their first-round World Championship qualifier, it was difficult for anyone to know what to expect.
The Scot, returning to the sport this season after a nine-year absence, had warned that this highly anticipated throwback to the sport’s glory years might not be pretty, and so it proved, as two of the game’s all-time greats limbered up their aching bones and produced a match that offered a stark reminder of the ravages of time.
It was Hendry who prevailed, just as he did in four World Championship finals in the 1990s, including three times in a row between 1992 and 1994. But in the dim confines of the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, where a black void surrounded the shimmering green baize, there were none of the fireworks of times gone by. Both Hendry and White struggled to find any kind of form, and in the end, the seven-time world champion handled the occasion better to win 6-3.
As the two legends spluttered and stuttered, it was a reminder of how difficult snooker truly is. Two players who had once made the game look effortlessly easy could hardly string a break of 30 together in the first four frames, before Hendry turned the screw after the interval. White’s mini comeback towards the end always felt in vain, and so the Whirlwind’s dream of a return to the Crucible Theatre was crushed for another year.
The result means that White will likely fall off the professional tour for the first time in 41 years, unless he is granted another invitational tour card, something he has relied upon for the last several years. Hendry is still in the first year of his invitational rite of passage, and perhaps the pressure on Jimmy’s shoulders was simply too much to bear.
Of course, neither player could boast realistic aspirations of making it through to the main event, with both distant contenders in the snooker World Championship 2021 odds. That’s why this quirk-of-fate draw that brought them together in qualification felt like a final in itself. It was a chance for White to enjoy a crumb of redemption in what will likely be the last time the pair face off, but instead he cut the same forlorn figure as in many of those World Championship let-downs of days gone by.
Old habits die hard, and Hendry’s most irrepressible habit has always been winning. His counter clearance in frame six to move 5-1 in front when 4-2 looked likely was a window into the past – a sepia-tinted snapshot of a player who once gleefully gobbled up such opportunities on a daily basis.
The match provided nostalgia if nothing else, and for Hendry a boost of confidence as he continues on his quest to reach the Crucible once again. For White, a familiar feeling perhaps, and you could have forgiven him if he had rolled his eyes and whispered ‘same old, same old’ as he made his way home, his latest shot at savouring the atmosphere of the sport’s spiritual home crushed by a returning foe. Never mind, Jimmy. Some guys just have all the luck.