HENDRY V WHITE
Snooker is a sport that has been blessed with many fascinating rivalries.
There was Ray Reardon and John Spencer in the 1970s, Steve Davis and Alex Higgins in the 1980s and, right now, John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan.
But, for me, the most enduring of them all was Stephen Hendry and Jimmy White, who kept snooker fans gripped by a series of world finals in the 1990s.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Hendry’s capture of the 1990 world title, making him the youngest ever winner of the game’s biggest event, a record he still holds despite the influx of young talent in the last two decades.
He won it with an 18-12 defeat of White, although their first Crucible meeting had come two years earlier in 1988. White had already lost in the 1984 final to Davis but was widely expected to win the Big One at some stage. Hendry was just 19 but had already won two ranking titles and was regarded as highly dangerous.
Their second round encounter was a revelation, so much so that the BBC devoted the whole of its end of year snooker review programme – these were the days when it had one – to this match and this match alone.
Just as all today’s leading players modelled their games on Hendry’s playing style, so Hendry had adopted White’s ultra-attacking approach.
White won the match 13-12. In 25 frames there were 26 breaks over 40.
I dare say if it were shown today the match would not appear to be anything special but back then it was like a burst of excitement and it deserves to be remembered as an all time classic.
The 1990 final was another quickfire affair with an average frame time of just 12 minutes.
The 1992 Crucible final between Hendry and White is one everyone old enough to have seen it remembers, more particularly if they were supporting the Whirlwind.
When White went 12-6 up, Clive Everton, not a man given to overstatement, said on BBC commentary, ‘surely he’s going to win it now.’ Most people watching probably thought the same. Hendry, though, had other ideas.
At 14-8, the Scot won the last two frames of the third session, the last of which with the aid of a superb brown that, had he missed it, would have almost certainly made it 15-9.
White was still favourite at 14-10 but immediately lost a black ball frame and the wheels started to come off. Had he won the title before he may have had enough resilience to repel the Hendry comeback but it wasn’t to be. Hendry made three centuries, including two in the final two frames, to complete a winning streak of ten frames and win 18-14.
Hendry was never better than when under pressure, the precise time when most players start to falter.
Their 1993 final was a landslide to Hendry. He won it 18-5 with a session to spare having played some of the best snooker of his career during the tournament.
In 1994 it was Hendry v White again. The final session attracted a peak viewing audience of 13.4m to BBC2 and, in terms of quality, tension and excitement, remains one of the best matches ever played.
White trailed 17-16 but made a 75 break to force the decider. What followed will live long in the memory of his fans. Perfectly placed in the balls and not far from capturing the title he snatched at a black. Hendry, predictably, cleared up to win 18-17.
It was a crushing blow from which White never really recovered. And yet he didn’t sulk, he didn’t blame anyone but himself and, interviewed by David Vine just minutes after the end, he smiled, shrugged and said, ‘he’s beginning to annoy me.’
It was this sort of gesture that helped endear White to millions. Those who run him down now because his game is not of the same standard as it was then should remember the popular appeal he helped give snooker.
And it was part of another reason why the Hendry-White rivalry is worth celebrating. Their matches were always played in a sporting context. Indeed, in that 1994 final, very near the end, the referee awarded a free ball to Hendry but Hendry got down and said he didn’t think it was one, despite it being a clear advantage to him.
When Hendry appeared on This Is Your Life, White gave him a £1 note (it was a long time ago) on which he had written, ‘from Jimmy White to the next Jimmy White.’ Hendry returned it with the message, ‘there’s only one Jimmy White.’
They met again at the Crucible in 1995, this time in the semi-finals where Hendry made a 147 and won 16-12.
White was to take one very small measure of revenge in the first round in 1998. He’d had to qualify and drew Hendry, beating him 10-4.
By chance, I was stood next to him in the pressroom when he called home the night he went 8-1 up. ‘I bet he still comes back and wins,’ he said, deadpan, to whoever was on the other end.
Of course, White beat Hendry a number of times, including in finals. He nearly whitewashed him in the 1991 Classic final, leading 9-0 before winning 10-4. He also beat Hendry 18-9 in the 1990 World Matchplay final.
But their rivalry came to be defined by the Crucible and by Hendry’s relentlessness in the face of White’s failings.
The best rivalries are between opposites. Hendry was quiet, driven and utterly obsessed with winning; White was gregarious, Jack-the-lad and would admit now that his preparation for big events was not always what it should have been.
He wasn’t unlucky not to be world champion. He had his chance – more than one chance – but couldn’t quite seal the deal even though, in terms of pure talent, he was a better player than some of those who have won it.
His popularity has never wavered, but I’m sure he’d swap some of that for at least one world title. Similarly, Hendry – sometimes booed by sections of the crowd – would have loved some of White’s appeal.
But who they were as people and how they played created an enthralling rivalry, one that snooker fans still remember fondly even though they are unlikely to ever again play each other on a big occasion.