Stephen Hendry is ablaze on the baize
Real box office, the sport that was most likely to knock football off the back pages of the tabloids, the sport which gave us Dennis Taylor's epic 18-17 victory over Steve Davis to win the 1985 World Championship, the sport which dominated terrestrial television. There was a time when Jimmy White, Steve Davis and Alex Higgins were household names jostling for column inches with Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Arc Archie
Gemmell. Our mums could instantly identify players like Terry Griffiths, Ray Reardon, Bill Werbeniuk, Cliff Thorburn and that flareswearing, preening warrior of the baize, Kirk Stephens. Even referee Len Ganley couldn't walk unmolested down Sauchiehall Street.
But for those of us of a certain age, no one has encapsulated our fascination with the game like Stephen Hendry. The whey-faced 16-year-old tyro brought up in Fife burst on to the professional scene in 1985 when the sport was at its absolute zenith, and over almost a quarter of a century dominated the sport in a way that neither Steve Davis before him nor Ronnie O'Sullivan since have been able to rival. He's undeniably the greatest player the game has ever seen: a seven-times world champion with career earnings of over 8m and over 750 century breaks, he has laid down benchmarks unlikely to ever be overhauled.
Hendry turns 40 on Tuesday. It's "just a day like any other, just a number" he says, but even the famously unsentimental Scot senses it's time to take stock, to look back on a career of unparalleled success. And when he looks in his rear-view mirror, he likes what he sees.
"I came into snooker at absolutely the perfect time," he says. "The boom on TV had already started, the money was bigger then that it is now and the profile of the sport was huge. There were big characters like Dennis Taylor doing his trick shots, John Parrott's banter, John Virgo doing his impressions, and Alex Higgins on the rampage.
"People remember those days like they were yesterday. I'm always being asked what happened to Werbeniuk and Stevens and those guys, but those same people could run into players in the street ranked in the top four in the world and they probably wouldn't recognise them."
If the game has changed, Hendry hasn't. He may be chattier and more forthright than ever, and it may be a while since he last won a tournament of note, but the Scot remains the relentlessly driven competitor famous for his daily eight-hour practice sessions. Given the timing of his birthday, it's no surprise that he has nothing planned ("I'm not one for parties anyway, but the wife and I might take a couple of days in London later in the month" he says).
This week is Masters week, the Wembley invitational tournament that has defined Hendry almost as much as the record seven world championships he won after becoming the youngest world champion at 21 in 1989. Hendry beat John Parrot 9-6 at the Masters at Wembley in 1989 to collect his first major title and went on to win it five years in a row, only relaxing his grip when he was beaten 9-8 in the final by fellow Scot Alan McManus in 1994. Even then he was back winning it in 1996 before losing two finals to close friend Mark Williams in 1998 and 2003. But those raw statistics hide some incredible battles, not least the unforgettable 1991 final when Hendry beat Mike Hallett 9-8 after trailing 7-0 and 8-2, and 1998, one of his darkest moments, when he lost 10-9 to Williams on a respotted black in the final frame after leading 9-6.
Even Hendry admits that "it's hard to be bullish when I haven't won a tournament for four or five years", but there are signs that he's capable of an Indian summer. He's still ranked sixth in the world and reached the semi-finals of two of the last three tournaments of last season.
While he remains realistic about his chances, Wembley still pushes his buttons. "I still think I'm good enough to win tournaments and still look forward to the buzz," he said. "Wembley's the second-biggest event after the world championship so if you can't get a buzz from that then maybe it's time to stop. I still know that on my day I'm good enough and I wouldn't bother turning up if I didn't believe that. There have been times when I've thought 'that's it, I'm giving up' but then you wake up the next day and say 'right, that's just being silly' and get back to the practice table."
If that sounds like the mantra of every ageing sports star unable to come to terms with terminal decline then bear in mind that we're talking to Stephen Hendry. This is a man who doesn't regret missing out on "silly things" like parties and drinking when he was young; whose reaction to winning a tournament wasn't to celebrate but "to get back to the practice room so that I'd win the next tournament and then the next one and then the one after that". Hendry defines himself by winning; he's not much interested in the concept of taking part, a trait that has been at the core of his success. Characteristically, when he looks back at his career, he sees it not in terms of experiences gained but of losses sustained.
"It was always about the winning," he says. "When I look back I hardly ever remember the matches I won, but I remember every one that I lost because of a bad shot. Sometimes I'll look back and cringe at shots I've played or shots I've missed. I look back at certain matches – like the loss in the final frame to Peter Ebdon at the world championship (in 2002] – and it still really hurts.
"Being such a bad loser has been a massive ingredient in the success that I've had. I see people taking losses a lot better than me and sometimes I think I should try to be like that, but it's not me: I hate it. Even now I expect to win every time I go out. Unfortunately I haven't mellowed at all. If anything I'm getting worse. You can't sulk around the place when you've got a family, but inside it hurts as much as it ever did."
Hendry hasn't got used to losing, but it plays a larger role in his life now. That, he believes, is because there's more talent in snooker than ever before: he used to turn up at tournaments knowing that he would meet one of four or five players in the semis; now there are so many good players that even the best can find themselves beaten in the first round. It's a development for which he blames himself.
"I've seen lots of change, especially in the way the game is played and a lot of that change is down to the way I played when I came into the game," he says. "I went for everything, safety was a bad word to me, I couldn't even spell it, and that's the way the game's played now. Guys just go for it and the number of century breaks you see now is so much higher than it was back in 1985 when you saw very few century breaks on television and certainly nowhere near as many as you do now."
Some changes haven't been for the better though. Once awash with cash, snooker has been pauperised by poor management and the tobacco ban which robbed the sport of its two biggest sponsors. Five years ago Hendry tried to galvanise his fellow players and rally support for TSN and Altium, two companies who offered to inject big money to revitalise snooker, but was stymied by players like Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins.
"It's come full circle and the guys who resisted change have now realised the implications. John Higgins is trying to set up something and those guys have come around to the ideas we put forward years ago. It's still annoying they turned it down and there was a lot of bullshit bandied around, a lot of lies told, but there was bad feeling in the game at that stage and it was all about the personalities rather than what was right for the game."
On the subject of what is right for the game, Hendry was bemused by the recent match-fixing rumours surrounding fellow Scots Stephen Maguire and Jamie Burnett. He hasn't seen the game in question "although like pretty much everyone else I rushed off and watched one or two of the more interesting shots on YouTube". He is unequivocal on what should happen: "If that is proved to be correct then obviously everyone involved should be banned from the game for life."
Not that Hendry himself is thinking of quitting the game he loves any time soon. His competitive instincts insist he continues to give it a lash. He could retire to the golf course (he's a low handicapper and lives next to Gleneagles) but says he can't summon the same obsession about golf that he has for snooker. Nor is the man who twice played in the World Series of Poker about to risk it all on the turn of a card ("I'm not good enough and my bank-roll's not big enough to play poker professionally").
Nor is tending his garden and watching fitba that appealing ("If any Scottish team was playing in my back garden I wouldn't go and watch them. Scottish football is so bad these days I can't bear to watch it").
Perhaps he'll call it a day when his son Blaine, who at 12 is already a promising player, is ready to take over his mantle.
How scary a thought is that: 50 years of Hendrys dominating the game. Don't bet against it.
LIFE AND TIMES
Born: January 13, 1969, in South Queensferry.
Upbringing: Brought up in Fife and attended Inverkeithing High School.
Early years: Took up snooker when he was 12. Won the Scottish Amateur Championships in 1984 and entered the World Amateur Championships.
Big break: Won the Grand Prix and British Open in 1987/88 and ended the season as World No.4.
Glory days: Became World No.1 in 1990 after winning the World Championship. Won the title a subsequent six times in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1999.
Marriage: Wed Mandy in 1995 and has two sons, Blaine and Carter.
Honours: Has won 65 professional titles and has recorded eight 147s.
Awards: Hendry has received an MBE, BBC Scotland Sports personality of the year twice and has won WPBSA player of the year six times.