Stephen Hendry and Jimmy White will meet once again

Stephen Hendry and Jimmy White's World Snooker Championship qualifier takes fans down memory lane

So, where were you when you heard Stephen Hendry had been drawn to play Jimmy White in World Championship qualifying?

I'll tell you my instant reaction, that they should retire the phrase "you couldn't make it up".

The clash of these two snooker icons will take many of us on a long trip down memory lane, to some truly titanic contests in decades long gone.

We're not talking about just the snooker world looking back here either. When Hendry played White in four Crucible finals in the 1990s, it cut across all sporting boundaries. The nation was hooked by those epics on the baize.

Nobody stood on the halfway line for those matches either. You were either in one camp or the other. Like Muhammad Ali fighting Joe Frazier, Seb Coe racing Steve Ovett, or Bjorn Borg playing John McEnroe. Everyone had their favourite.

I realise it wasn't exclusively about finals at the World Championship. White beat Hendry 13-12 in a thrilling last 16 clash in 1988. Hendry saw off White in a 1995 semi-final. White got the better of Hendry in round one in 1998. "Oy oy" and all that.

But really, it was mostly about those showpiece matches. The first of their finals was in 1990, and it really wasn't proper preparation for what was to follow. Hendry was a fairly comfortable 18-12 winner as he claimed his first world title. But boy, was that just a starter.

The 1992 final might have haunted White fans for ever, if it wasn't for something even more shattering two years later. The Englishman looked almost certain to land the big prize when he surged into a 14-8 lead. White was mentally rehearsing his victory speech.

But Hendry pinched the last two frames of the third session โ€“ his nerveless brown in the 24th frame, with the cue ball over the middle pocket, is still talked about to this day โ€“ and at 14-10 there were certainly still nerves around for White supporters.

That final night had an inevitable feel about it, as Hendry kept piling on the pressure, and racking up the frames. He won the first four of the session to level at 14-14. We knew where this was going. The prolific Scot duly wrapped up an 18-14 win, finishing in style with breaks of 134 and 112. Ten frames in a row. It was an extraordinary snooker night.

Twelve months later, White wasn't really at the races at all in the final. Hendry started with a break of 136 and soon opened up a 5-1 lead. The writing was on the wall very quickly. Hendry eventually sealed a comprehensive 18-5 success, winning with a session to spare.

Will Stephen Hendry break Jimmy White's heart once again?

Then came 1994. Obviously no writer should tell anyone to look away now. But maybe go gently if you're a White fan. Which will almost certainly be the majority of those reading this. The scars haven't healed, I'm sure of it.

The thing hardly anyone talks about is how good White was until the deciding frame that night. He was outstanding. Hendry kept pummelling him, but White stood up to it and delivered many blows of his own. It was awesome to watch for an absorbed Crucible audience and millions of television viewers glued to the screen.

It was the first final to go the distance since the infamous black ball finish between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor nine years earlier. This climax may not quite have the legendary status of 1985, but it's not that far off.

You can see it in mind's eye now. White narrowly in front, the balls at his mercy. Even Hendry was allowing a few thoughts of "good old Jimmy" to intrude into his seemingly impending disappointment.

But then White missed a black off its spot. Well, he butchered it really. There's no excuse. The old place had never gasped quite like it did at that moment.

Hendry sensed his chance, and frankly he was never going to miss. He cleared with 58 to win 18-17. All this on White's birthday, as BBC man David Vine soon reminded him. The crestfallen Londoner gave all of us one of those snooker phrases that would resonate down the years: "he's beginning to annoy me".

1994 World Snooker Championship Final - Stephen Hendry v Jimmy White

White would never again get to a world final. He had lost six, four of them to Hendry. Sport's ultimate bridesmaid. Hendry meanwhile kept winning and winning again, until he picked up a record seventh Crucible crown in 1999.

Their careers went on pretty different paths after that. Hendry remained a top player of course, but his days of domination came to an end. His last ranking event win came in 2005.

By the spring of 2012, he had enough of losing and dramatically retired at the age of 43. He may have just made a 147 at the World Championship and reached the quarter-finals, but that was nowhere near enough. We said farewell to a man we all recognised at that time as the finest ever player.

White's last ranking success was in 2004, and as the years went on he began to tumble down the rankings. But White isn't into all that retiring business. He just wants to play. So he's just carried on playing. His recent attempts to make the Crucible have looked part heroic, part saddening. But White hasn't really cared a jot either way about appearances.

His presence at the table has been a true constant for fans of the sport, maybe even more so since Steve Davis retired. Snooker's permanent witness. We've all seen those nostalgic images of White as a precocious Tooting teenager. He turned professional just after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Next year, he will turn 60. And still he's on tour.

Back to Hendry. He gave us another big surprise last autumn when he announced his return to the sport. Whether it was seeing so many stars perform well deep into their forties, his fine run at the 2020 World Seniors Championship, or just hankering after that old buzz, he couldn't resist another go.

We then finally saw Hendry in action last month at the Gibraltar Open, with the 52-year-old firing in a fine century against his good friend Matthew Selt, only to lose 4-1.

Which brings us to that draw. We heard it at the same time as Hendry did on television โ€“ his surprised reaction was priceless. In truth, all snooker fans of a certain vintage found that a very bewildering lunchtime. It all happened in a haze. The overriding feeling was, is this for real? What, that Stephen Hendry? Against that Jimmy White?

Stephen HENDRY Reacts To Drawing Jimmy WHITE In Crucible Qualifying

There's a feeling of deja vu in more ways than one here. When I wrote a month ago that we should relish Hendry's comeback, I said that snooker was in a healthy enough position not to need sub-plots or cameos. It's worth repeating that ahead of Monday's meeting of these two superstars in Sheffield.

In all honesty, this is only the first act of a very long play, one that will finish at the Crucible on May 3. There's every chance we'll have long forgotten about Hendry against White by then.

True, there is the possibility of White falling off tour if he loses. But World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn recently confirmed on the Talking Snooker podcast that he'll be getting another wildcard if he wants it anyway.

White will fancy his chances. After all, he's the one that's been playing proper match snooker throughout the season. No amount of practice can ever equal that. But Hendry is the fiercest of competitors. If he goes down to defeat, he'll likely be kicking and screaming in the process.

Either way, let's just have one night of revelling in these two wonderful old stagers shall we? Sure, the standard might not be brilliant. They will both likely be a pale shadow of those glorious gladiators of old. But remember, they have a combined age of 110. Time withers us all. How lucky we are to enjoy a sport in which the most special of talents can still keep us tuning in when they're so long past their pomp.

Roll up, roll up. This is a dream month for snooker fans. And it starts with a match we definitely never thought we would see again. Hendry against White. Good heavens. Memories, light the corners of my mind.

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