By Fin Ruane
The retirement of Stephen Hendry during last season’s World Championship raised quite a few eyebrows. The seven-time world champion stunned the snooker community with his announcement after his quarter-final defeat to Stephen Maguire. Many thought, including myself, that he still had a lot to offer the game which was obviously highlighted by his magnificent maximum break during his first round match at the Crucible.
Hendry cited his struggle for form and the amount of travelling and time away from his family that was now needed to compete on the now global circuit as his main reasons for his retirement. He could have retired several years earlier if he had wanted such was the fortune he had amassed during his playing career but his competitive instinct and belief that he could still perform at the highest level kept him playing. Results over the past couple of seasons were not of the Hendry standard and the odd flash of his genius, such as two maximum breaks in ranking events, were to be his only highlights. Add the fact that he was no longer a player ranked in the Top 16 which meant no Masters appearances and on top of that he had to qualify for the final stages of ranking events and it more than persuaded him to call time on his career. Shortly after his retirement it was revealed that Hendry had signed a six-figure sum with a Chinese pool supplier to act as their ambassador over the coming years – even in retirement Hendry was still able to add to his vast fortune.
The questions began to rise again after Hendry’s retirement regarding the timescale of a snooker player’s career of how old is too old to play the game at a high level?
Unlike other sports snooker is a game which, though obviously based on skill, never really needed a player to be in peak fitness. However with the dawn of the Barry Hearn era and with snooker tournaments now held eleven months of the year and spread throughout the world, fitness and diet have become more and more important. Personal trainers and sports psychologists are employed by some of the top players to help them improve their physical health and mental condition before each event. Established players in their mid to late thirties and some in their early forties have begun to feel the pressure, not just physically but more important financially. This is in part due to the amount of travelling now involved and with five trips to China and one to Australia this season alone the expense involved just to compete is huge. On top of that most of these players have families now and time spent away from their loved ones does take its toll on their game. With PTC events also carrying ranking points and three ranking cut-off points during the season the pressure to win and stay on the tour is becoming increasingly difficult for these pros.
With prize money totalling over seven million pounds this season the rewards are certainly there, but the prize money on offer for first and second round defeats is hardly worth the expense that is needed to compete in some ranking events. Even now with World Snooker’s decision to make the ranking system basically a money-earned list from the 2014/2015 season it hardly endears itself to those that can now only make it to the last 32 at best.
When we think of the top players in the world we think of the Trumps, the Robertsons and the Selbys, all young men with years ahead of them in the game, no chance of retirement here. They are established, wealthy, and can even afford to miss several events as their ranking won’t change too much in their absence. Even the current world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, at 36, is, if he continues to play and I for one hope he does, maybe looking at another four years in the game before he calls it a day. Again, O’Sullivan has, like Hendry, amassed a huge fortune playing snooker so his retirement should be cosy enough.
So what of the generation of professionals still playing who joined up in the ’90s when the pro game was opened up? What of the players who gained a place on the tour by winning the World Amateur Championships during those years? The one thing these players all have in common is their age – they are all in their middle to late thirties and some are well into their forties.
The latest rankings issued after last weekend’s Paul Hunter Classic show only seven names from that era still inside the Top 32 – Mark Williams, John Higgins, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Davis, Peter Ebdon, Dominic Dale and Ken Doherty. Out of those six Ebdon and Doherty, both 42, are the oldest. All have won multiple ranking events bar Davis, but to his credit the likeable Englishman has chipped in with two World Six-Red Championship triumphs.
Many of the other players from the ’90s and before have long since vanished from the circuit. Some are still involved in snooker, such as commentators Neal Foulds, John Parrott, Dennis Taylor, Joe Johnson and Mike Hallett, while others are owners of snooker clubs such as Terry Griffiths and Les Dodd, but the majority have completely finished with the sport.
Bar possibly John Parrott none of them would be able to compete on the circuit now. Parrott called time on his career which I thought possibly came too early but again, like Hendry and O’Sullivan, Parrott made a good living from the game and still continues to do so with his role as a horse racing and snooker pundit for the BBC.
The concentration and dedication needed to compete at the highest level of any sport is immense and snooker is no different. Take for example snooker’s blue riband event, the World Championship – a marathon 17-day journey for the eventual winner who may have to play over 100 frames of matchplay snooker under the toughest conditions to prevail. Could a 40 year-old player do it? In the past, almost certainly. But now? The answer in my opinion is no. Williams, Higgins and O’Sullivan offer probably the best chance of an older player winning yet they are all around 36 and could be all retired from the game at 40.
There are of course the exceptions to the rule such as legends Steve Davis and Jimmy White and although their ranking event winning days are long behind them their love of the game still keeps them playing at a relatively high standard. The odd moment of brilliance can and should be expected from them and even though they are in the twilight of their careers, opponents will never take them lightly – albeit facing them now rather than in their prime will certainly make their opponent that bit more confident of gaining a result.
Last weekend in Furth at the Paul Hunter Classic two players in their forties stole the show with their own moments of genius. Ken Doherty made a maximum break, his first in competitive play to finally banish his Benson & Hedges Masters demons, whilst Joe Swail, who is now off the Main Tour, has almost certainly played himself back on to it with a succession of brilliant wins over the likes of Shaun Murphy and Barry Hawkins only to fall at the final hurdle to defending champion Mark Selby.
Can Doherty and Swail keep the momentum going into the next event? There is no doubt that these two and the many other players of that same age can play great snooker. Winning does breed confidence but it’s the lapses of concentration that take their toll. That missed black off the spot, the missed red they would usually pot 100 times out of 100 are now all too frequent. The days of putting in 8 hours down in the club just isn’t possible any more and they know it. The game can be physically and mentally draining, add to that the pressure of coming up against players like Trump who can win a match in quick-fire time without you even potting a ball and it can be demoralising for confidence and motivation.
Peter Ebdon surprised everybody last season when he won the China Open at 41 and some thought he may have made it two ranking wins when he whitewashed Alfie Burden 10-0 to qualify for the Crucible only to fall rather tamely to eventual winner O’Sullivan in the first round. I remember Doug Mountjoy, with the help of coach Frank Callan, coming back from snooker oblivion to win the UK Championship and the Mercantile Classic in the ’88/’89 season. Two back-to-back ranking wins for a 45-year-old was big news back then and a feat I have no doubt will ever be matched again by a player of that age on today’s tour.
There is an old saying that snooker is a young man’s game, and that the future of the sport lies with the youth. I believe that to be true, there are so many good young players out there now just waiting for that chance with Q-School and events such as the SnookerBacker Classic giving them that opportunity to join the tour and maybe just someday become world champion. But is snooker really just a young man’s game?
No doubt Messrs Ebdon, Doherty and Swail will have a big say in that.