How rarefied is the air around sporting genius? Maybe there is no better measure than Stephen Hendry’s maximum break against Stuart Bingham in the first round of the 2012 World Championship.
In 10 minutes of skill and adrenaline and focus, a skittish Crucible is hypnotised into nervy silence, punctuated by roars of relief and awe and nostalgia.
By now, they are watching Hendry as plucky underdog — unanimous cheering where once an invincible champion drew the odd heckle.
In this cameo, that guy was back, backing off nothing.
A thin snick on the black taking him into the pack. No problem. Long straight red off a rail. Flowed in on a bed of honey.
He is in flow, or so it looked, already cueing the next red before the ref has respotted the black.
“Has someone stuck a tape on from 20 years ago?” they wonder on the Eurosport gantry.
Play stops on the other table, as the old theatre sucks in and hopes for the best.
“This is how I used to be for an entire tournament. Now it is for just a few minutes,” Hendry writes in his book,.
Only seven players across four decades have managed what he is doing at the Crucible — this beautiful, elegant feat.
But that’s not the yardstick. Because all Stephen Hendry can think about is how far this is away from genius.
It’s an illusion, a facsimile, a fraud that fools an audience but not himself.
Playing from amnesia, as Big Ron might put it.
For a decade, the magic has been hissing away, and there’s no knot he can tie.
“In my heart I know that out of the 36 shots it takes to make the maximum, I’m only happy with about five or six of them. When I pot the first black I barely shift the pack of reds. In years gone by I’d have sent them scattering, allowing them to be picked off easily.”
Once, when Hendry won tournaments he had to force a smile for the cameras “because winning was my job”. But when the black goes down he celebrates with unusual gusto. Ken Doherty and Neil Robertson are in from the other table, full of goodwill.
By now, Hendry enjoys bonhomie with peers where once he lorded over subjects. He fist-pumps and raises a glass of water to himself.
“It’s because I know I will never repeat such a feat at this venue.”
“Who says he’s not the player he was!?’ roars BBC commentator John Virgo.”
Hendry wrote: “Me — I say it.”
He went out in the quarter-finals — mauled 13-2 by Stephen Maguire — and immediately announced his retirement.
What’s the perfect sporting state of mind? There’s much to be said for the Teddy Sheringham approach, as summed up by his old pal Tony Cascarino.
Bulletproof. At peace with his gifts and where they take him. Talent fitting him comfortably, as if George Costanza was living his dream of being draped in velvet.
Box that up with Roy Keane’s relentless, restless drive for perfection.
Maybe Hendry once trumped them all. There was little call to be tolerant of his own mistakes, but his perfectionism seemed frictionless, tailored to fit, winning just an entitlement.
When he was no longer the best, when his talent shrank and cut into him, he turned to a psychologist who worked in grief counseling.
“You have to stop beating yourself up and play for the love of snooker,” she told him.
It only made him realise he no longer loved snooker. “My enjoyment comes from winning, and when that is taken away there is no enjoyment.”
After he retired, Roy Keane said his final furlong at Celtic embarrassed him, recalling how he felt like a silly kid, doing things to impress, grinding that hip just to try and score a goal or two, to prove what he used to be.
In 2018, Hendry trod much the same road in an interview with Donald McRae for the. Even exhibitions had become an ordeal. “Once it starts I’m totally embarrassed by my shots. It’s horrible.”
Sometimes he had a couple of drinks before going out.
“It works sometimes but that’s not a way out. I have to live with it now.”
On Tuesday he returns, at 52, in the Gibraltar Open in Milton Keynes. Ronnie O’Sullivan has welcomed back “our Tiger Woods”. Taking back the baton, just as Woods crashes out of our lives again.
Why is he doing it? Back then, he told McRae: “I’ve not got a bad life now but I have days where I think: ‘What is there to look forward to? What’s the buzz?’”
Roy Keane has only lately arrived on Instagram, but Hendry is a veteran of social at this stage. Maybe the dopamine hits have worn off.
Is it fanciful to think he could trump even Woods’ greatest achievement?
That Masters win in 2019 has doubtless been overplayed as a redemptive narrative.
But there was something endlessly compelling about the man regarded as one of the great narcissists of our time finding so much peace in a dialed-down version of himself. Winning as a mortal while enjoying the bonhomie of his peers.
Hendry has been called a narcissist a few times too. According to his counsellor, “controlling the ego is key to solving my difficulties”. By the end, whenever he went out the first bad shot just reminded him of how far he had fallen.
He now says he has “no expectations” of how things will go on Tuesday. His coach Stephen Feeney has tipped him to win again, but it might be enough if he can find peace with something a few steps down from genius.
“Just to see him happy in the game, we are already winning.”
Maybe he has learned to live with a dialed-down version of himself. Maybe he has learned to live like Teddy.