Was Stephen Hendry the greatest of them all?
It is said that professional sportspeople die twice: first when their career ends and again when they draw their last breath. As with real life, the end of a sportsperson's career is less likely to be sudden than more of a drawn-out affair.
For Stephen Hendry, his unedifying defeat by Stephen Maguire at the Crucible on Tuesday was the last stirrings of a sporting career in terminal decline. By Hendry's own admission, he had been descending the "slow, slippery slope" for the best part of 10 years.
Even when he was making his 11th career 147 against Stuart Bingham last week and savaging defending champion John Higgins in the second round, Hendry, the perfectionist's perfectionist, knew he was nowhere near to being back to his best. "Did I really play that well?" he said. "I don't think so."
Different sports allow their legends to age with different levels of dignity. When a footballer's legs go, they have no option but to quit. When a tennis player burns out, they either quit or they fast disappear from the rankings. But the non-athletic nature of snooker means its legends invariably play on: stalking past glories, their often agonising death throes on display for all to witness.
Not every snooker player's career fizzles out in pain. Higgins once said that while Steve Davis loves snooker, Stephen Hendry loves winning. Which would explain why Davis is still not retired, 17 years after capturing his last ranking event and 23 years after winning his sixth and last world title.
While for Davis, the experience of World Championship qualifying, involving as it does battling young hopefuls and faded stars in a cavernous, partitioned sports hall, is just about bearable, for Hendry it was demeaning.
Stephen Hendry announced his retirement after a 13-2 defeat by Stephen Maguire. Photo: Getty
"The only people watching were my opponent's family on their big day," said the 43-year-old, who was forced to qualify for the Crucible this year for the first time since 1988. "Without meaning to be disrespectful, it's not a big day for me, I'm just there trying to survive."
Only last week, Hendry gave me an insight into just how great his love of winning was: "It's nice when you're beating an opponent and you're kicking him when he's down," said the Scot. "That's what sport is all about, the only reason for playing." An ideal epitaph, but his comments made some readers queasy.
Indeed, Hendry's winning made British sports fans feel uneasy throughout his career, especially during his glorious 1990s when he won his record - and perhaps never to be surpassed - seven world titles.
"I am not a superstar in Britain," Hendry told the BBC in 2008. "In Britain we don't appreciate people who have been a major success in sport. It is grudgingly given to you. If you just practise, work hard every day, win tournaments and don't go out doing whatever [so-called characters] do, you are boring and no-one wants anything to do with you.
"Even when I used to play Jimmy White in Scotland, he would have the majority of the support. Jimmy was their favourite, he is one of those characters, I suppose. Jimmy was great to watch - but what did he win?"
It is Hendry's misfortune that the general sports fan in Britain is shot through with a rather sentimental streak: "Yes, Stephen, but why did 'our' Jimmy not win? Because you kept on beating him, you miserable old thing."
Even by British standards, snooker is more misty-eyed than most sports. Hence why the discussion even takes place as to who is the greatest to have ever picked up a cue. Seven world titles say it's Hendry; 27 consecutive Crucible appearances say it's Hendry; 36 ranking titles says it's Hendry; 775 century breaks say it's Hendry; 11 147s say it's Hendry. But someone will always raise a hand, wipe away a tear and bring up Alex Higgins' 'miracle break' in 1982.
Before anyone cries "hypocrite", I will admit I am guilty as charged. A couple of weeks back, I wrote a blog hailing Ronnie O'Sullivan as a snooker game-changer, someone who changed the face of his sport. In terms of aesthetics, decoration and glitter, I stand by my point. But in terms of bricks and mortar, of relocating the very foundations of snooker, Hendry was, and is, the main man.
Perhaps only Babe Ruth, who transformed baseball completely in the 1920s with his power-hitting, has had such an impact on an individual sport. Fluid and aggressive, a fearless long-potter and a rapacious break-builder, the young Hendry confused as much as excited the fusty, traditional world of 1980s snooker.
It irked Hendry that some people viewed Judd Trump's expansive game as a great leap forward: "Everyone goes on about how attacking it is, but that's exactly how I won World Championships. It's nothing new." But 'snooker people' - those well-versed in this most esoteric of sports - knew the truth.
"One of my greatest heroes is Tiger Woods," said Hendry following his retirement announcement. "He said 'as long as you're in the discussion [as to who the greatest in your sport is], you've done all right'."
Done all right? Thankfully, the dead don't usually write their own eulogies. It's a shame Hendry didn't feel more loved while he was playing the game. Luckily, unlike with a real funeral, Hendry is still around to lap up the more florid - and infinitely more accurate - eulogies that will flood in over the coming days.