Hendry still loves winning
I knew Stephen Hendry loved winning. We all knew Stephen Hendry loved winning - seven world titles told us that. But it is his brutal frankness about his love of winning, more than the winning itself, that takes the breath away.
Try to recall all those classic Crucible 147s: Bill Werbeniuk peeking round the partition as his mate Cliff Thorburn claws his way to the first maximum at the venue; Mick Price, all child-like and wide-eyed with wonder as Ronnie O'Sullivan slings his chalk into the crowd; and Stuart Bingham only last week, genuinely delighted to see Hendry complete the 11th of his career. But if anyone did that to Hendry, he readily admits he'd be burning up inside.
"No-one's ever made one against me, I would hate it - I wouldn't be genuinely happy for them," says the Scot, playing in his 27th straight World Championship.
"It's not nice when the shoe's on the other foot. It's nice when you're beating an opponent and you're kicking him when he's down. That's what sport is all about, the only reason for playing."
It is fair to say that if the Olympic movement is ever considering an alternative to founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin's motto - "the most important thing is not winning but taking part" - they won't be canvassing Hendry for ideas.
While Hendry might still sound every bit like 'The Ice Man', in reality it is 13 long years since he landed the big one, while he has not won a ranking tournament since 2005. For the last seven years, Hendry, who was forced to qualify for this year's event, has been descending a "slow, slippery slope".
"I don't put the work in on the practice table that I used to, so a bit of the sharpness goes," says Hendry, whose victory over Bingham in the first round set up a first Crucible meeting with fellow Scot and defending champion John Higgins. "And other things in life become more important. It's not the eyes, I had them checked out and they're perfect, so that's one excuse I can't use.
"But the longer you go without winning, the more your confidence goes down. You only get confidence from winning, so it's a vicious circle. I've got a deep-down belief in my ability, but not necessarily the belief I can go out and win."
At the end of last season, having been hammered 13-4 by Mark Selby in the second round at the Crucible, Hendry toyed with the idea of retiring. He sucked it up and decided to continue, but readily admits scrabbling around in the foothills of the sport he once straddled is an undignified experience.
"The last time I had to qualify was 1988 and it wasn't a nice feeling," says the 43-year-old. "And all the PTC [Players Tour Championships] events make it harder for me and people with families, but you've just got to get on with it.
"The way the ranking system is at the moment, players are blackmailed into playing the PTCs because there are so many ranking points. Snooker players are not like golfers where you can take two or three tournaments off, you have to play in absolutely everything, the sport is tough in that way.
"But I still love the buzz of walking out to a packed Crucible. And, although I came to the tournament as an underdog and a qualifier this year, I still have tremendous pride in my own performance. And I still expect big things."
Hendry's first-round display - as well as his third Crucible 147, he made a century and six breaks of more than fifty - suggested big things were possible again. To the extent that Higgins, not the previously unfancied Hendry, who only jetted in from China the day before his victory over Bingham, might be the one enduring an uncomfortable Thursday night.
"We've been together in snooker now for 20-odd years so it's amazing we've never played each other [at the Crucible]," says Hendry. "And to play the defending champion and one of the favourites for the tournament is exciting.
"I've not got any form over the past six years to be saying 'I'm coming down here to win the tournament'. But the longer I stay in it I've got a chance of winning. If there's one place I know I can win at, it's the Crucible."
When Hendry surveys today's snooker landscape he denies he feels old - he has five years on the next oldest left in the draw, Joe Perry - but says he feels tremendous pride at seeing the game he created being replicated by others.
"Nobody's doing anything that I wasn't doing in my prime, there are just more players doing it," says Hendry, who won his first world title in 1990 at the age of 21. "The game that Judd Trump plays, everyone goes on about how attacking it is, but that's exactly how I won World Championships. It's nothing new."
Such is the British public's perverse relationship with winners, which fosters an environment in which the underdog is so often king ("the applause I get now is far louder than when I was dominating the game") Hendry is sure to be backed to the rafters against Higgins. Yet you sense Hendry would rather it was like the good old days, when his victories were met with shrugs and rolls of the eyes.
"I want all the glory myself," he says. "I'm a winner and I still hate to see other players winning. I still believe the World Championship belongs to me."