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'Guys are bashing balls in from everywhere, there's no respect'

KILL or be killed.

Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis have won 13 world titles between them. Picture: Newsquest
Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis have won 13 world titles between them. Picture: Newsquest

When Steve Davis reflects upon the singular mindset that led Stephen Hendry to end his dominance of snooker and change the face of the sport, he finds there is simply no other way to describe the ruthlessness behind the Scot's rise to power.

As Hendry prepares to make a surprise return to the baize this season, more than two years on from quitting amid claims the game was "grinding him down", the man he deposed as king has concerns that same all-or-nothing attitude may prove an impediment to making the most of his time back in the spotlight.

Davis and Hendry, along with the Thai player, James Wattana, have been awarded 'wild cards' under a new scheme that will permit them to enter events in which there is not a full 128-strong complement of players. They will also benefit from plans to invite all former world champions into the qualifying event for snooker's annual showpiece in the cathedral of Sheffield's Crucible.

Davis, who fell off the tour after slipping out of the top 64 earlier this year, admits he now regards his involvement as little more than a hobby. Hendry, though, has already made noises about "fancying himself" because of the standards he sees in his role as a television commentator and has made it clear he wants to be properly competitive.

It hardly comes as a surprise. The 45-year-old, who won a record seven world titles, does not do things by halves. Time out of the hothouse promoting eight-ball pool in China and fulfilling other commercial obligations has opened him up to all manner of new experiences, but the steeliness of old remains intact.

"The nature of Stephen Hendry is that he can only do it 100%," said Davis. "Therein lies his potential problem if he is only going to dabble in the game. He won't know until he tries if he can actually enjoy it. I don't know if he can or whether he will say, 'I've tried it and it is not for me.' As far as I am aware, Stephen has no intention to come back on the tour, but that is not to say he won't dabble, and that is realistic because he can still play the game to a very high standard.

"Stephen thinks there are not so many people playing brilliant snooker to outplay him. He is not talking about Ronnie O'Sullivan. He is talking about the general standard. The biggest problem for all players as they get older, though, is their consistency level goes down.

"When Stephen retired he was probably lacking in a little bit of competitive confidence and lost faith in his relentlessness. You can't necessarily get that back overnight, even if you are a bit more relaxed.

"If you are going to criticise Stephen, you would say that he sometimes doesn't know when to put the shutters up. He refuses, out of pride, to play the obvious safety shot. He wants to play the 'man' shot. He will still be playing those attacking shots when he comes back. The trouble is that you have got to get them and that is what he wasn't doing towards the end of his career.

"It is all very well playing what you believe to be the right shot but you'll be killed if you don't get them. Other players out there are executing those shots with alarming regularity. In the nicest possible way, there is no respect on the table any longer. There are guys bashing balls in from everywhere."

Hendry will be confronted by a phalanx of youthful, aggressive players eager to claim his scalp. It can be argued that the game is now played even more on the front foot than it was when he stepped away and Davis recalls from his own gradual downfall just how difficult it can be to keep hungry young pretenders at bay when you are starting to question everything about yourself.

"The first chinks in my armour showed when Stephen came along," recalled the 56-year-old, a six-time world champion. "The 1980s had been based on a cagier game, but Stephen came along and tried to kill everyone. His attitude was kill or be killed and I was more about using defence to start with, before picking off your opponent. Suffocating him to death, really.

"He ripped up the textbook and an onslaught of players then came along in his wake. Faced with that, you lose confidence in your winning ways and your strategy, everything.

"If you are talking about my relentlessness as a professional, that went hand-in-hand with the reward I was getting from the game. The less reward I was getting, the less I was encouraged to keep putting hard work in. A long time after 1997, when I beat Ronnie O'Sullivan in the Masters to win my last major trophy, I reached the view I was bashing my head against a brick wall. I would be better just playing when I fancied it.

"That was maybe around something like 2005. I started to play with less weight on my shoulders and regarded it as more of a hobby, but it was a slow process."

Davis has never taken a break from the sport, though. Retirement could not be further from his mind. Something keeps drawing him back to the table and he can understand why Hendry is now dealing with the urge to return.

"There was an element of obsession and hobby about the game and it is still there, to some degree," said Davis. "It is like the boxer who forever wants to come back even though he knows he is going to get beaten up in the ring.

"It's in your blood."

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