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Snooker's greatest comeback: 'It took me six months to get over it'

Ismail Vedat
January 17, 2014
Stephen Hendry has won a record seven world titles as well © PA Photos
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No player has won more Masters crowns than Stephen Hendry, but when the legend of the game clinched the third of his six triumphs against Mike Hallett in 1991, it was no doubt one of the toughest matches he has ever faced as he was forced to produce a monumental fightback.

Stephen Hendry became the youngest professional on the snooker circuit at the tender age of 16 in 1985. As a 14-year-old, he appeared on the junior version of the popular BBC show Pot Black, and many believed there was a future world champion in the making.

In his opening season he became the youngest player to qualify for the World Championship at the Crucible, but having lost 10-8 to Willie Thorne he was applauded by his opponent out of the famous theatre in Sheffield, which would later turn out to be his most successful venue.

The World Championship, UK Championship and the Masters are known as the Triple Crown, and Hendry got his hands on the Masters in 1989 on his debut at the prestigious event, defeating John Parrott 9-6 in the final.

And that year was the beginning of a new era in snooker, with Hendry bringing an attacking style of play to the green baize, and it was already clear he was set to take over the mantle of Steve Davis from the 1980s and dominate.

"The seven frames I played in the afternoon was the best snooker I've ever played. I never missed a ball"
Mike Hallett

After becoming the youngest world champion at 21 in 1990, as well as reaching the summit of the world rankings, Hendry was a class above the rest of the field.

A year later, Hendry had yet to lose a match at the Masters since his debut, and was targeting a hat-trick of wins at the Wembley Conference Centre. The Scot played like a champion in brushing aside John Virgo, Tony Meo and his old foe Jimmy White to the loss of only two frames en route to the final. Just the week before, he teamed up with Mike Hallett in the doubles to win Barry Hearn's World Masters in Birmingham.

"I was obviously a very strong favourite for the match," recalls Hendry. "I had won two in a row, so this was for the third one. And I was No. 1 at the time, so everything pointed to me winning the match comfortably. I played doubles together with Mike and we were with the same management team, so we were quite close on the circuit.

"It's a bit weird because sometimes when you play somebody you know quite well, you have a different attitude, but I still expected to win the match."

Mike Hallett had yet to win a major event © PA Photos
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Standing in his way of further success was Hallett, who was a holder of a record at the Masters for all the wrong reasons.

He is the only player to have suffered a whitewash in the final after being kept in his seat for the majority of his 9-0 thrashing against Davis in 1988. "I got buried," says Hallett now. "When I got to the final, I was flat and didn't have anything left in the tank. This time, I tried to pace myself during the week."

He was determined to make amends against the dominant player on the circuit. "I put a lot of work in six weeks before the Masters. I put in so many hours, playing best-of-35 frames almost every day. I got to the Thursday before the event, and I felt really good. I was hitting the ball really well and it was going to take something special to beat me," he added.

Hendry had set a record of five ranking event wins in the season, and was the current world champion, world No.1 and UK champion, but it was Hallett who took command of the final.

He immediately laid one ghost to rest by winning the first frame of the afternoon - more than he had managed at all against Davis - and from there the momentum kept building. It turned out to be a great opening session for the winner of just one ranking event, as he claimed all the frames on offer to lead 7-0.

"The seven frames I played in the afternoon was the best snooker I've ever played. I never missed a ball," Hallett said.

Hallett had returned back to his hotel room, only to switch on the television to find the BBC coverage still on air. Presenter Tony Gubba asked studio guest John Spencer, the first Masters champion from 1975, how he thought the rest of the final would go, to which he said it was vital for Hendry to win the first two frames of the evening session.

"I wish I never switched over, because I was sitting in my chair in the evening session thinking about that interview. I wish I just kept it on the football," Hallett said.

When the players returned for the second session, many inside the Wembley Conference Centre believed they could be heading for an early night. But not Hendry.

"I expected him to pot the pink - I thought it was over"
Stephen Hendry

"After the session I just went back to my room, relaxed, had some food, and didn't watch any snooker, just didn't watch any coverage. I was pretty despondent, as you would be given you're 7-0 down in a final. I just thought in the evening 'let's see what happens'," Hendry said.

Hendry wouldn't have known it at the time, but he lived up to Spencer's challenge by winning the opening two frames of the night, but Hallett was not fazed, and he moved to within one frame of his greatest feat as a professional at 8-2.

In amongst the balls, Hallett could dream of lifting the Masters trophy. After potting the final blue, he was two balls away from victory. However, he missed the pink with the rest, and Hendry stepped in to make the score 8-3.

"I could see that he didn't hit the blue well and didn't get position on the pink, but still, I expected him to pot it," Hendry said. "I thought it was over. Obviously with him missing, I jumped out of my seat and potted the pink.

"And the whole way back to the dressing room, he was walking in front of me, and was banging his cue in frustration, and I just thought: 'If I could just win one frame at a time'.

"I didn't win a lot of the frames in one visit. So he had chances, but he was just getting more and more agitated. At 8-4, 8-5, I started to think that I could win this as it doesn't look like he can get over the line."

And eventually, Hendry completed the remarkable comeback to fight from 7-0 down to win 9-8. "I was two balls away from lifting the trophy," laments Hallett. "I lost my discipline a little bit. The thing was at the time, Stephen had won back-to-back tournaments, and I was thinking at that time he was the only player who could take the title off me, because he had the mental strength."

What happened next?

Not only had Hallett been denied one of the greatest triumphs of his career, but he encountered further heartache away from Wembley. "I was massively disappointed. I went home, and found out that my house had been burgled. So it wasn't a great day. It was a great week, but not a good last couple of hours," he said.

Hallett went on to win two major invitational events, but his career dipped as he fell out of the world's top 16 a year later. "It took me about six months to get over it. I was totally crushed. It took me a little while to get over it, but you've got to take the positives from it," he said.

Hendry would go on to lift six Masters in total, and become the most successful player in the game by winning a record seven world titles. "To keep my run going at the Masters, it was very important. In terms of comebacks, in my career, there's not been that many better than that from being so far behind, so it's right up there." Both men now provide punditry and commentary for televised snooker events, including this year's Masters.

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