Stephen Hendry: ‘You have to be very selfish to be and stay the best’

The snooker legend spoke honestly about making sacrifices in a Letter to My Younger Self

I never watched snooker on TV, but two weeks before my 13th birthday I got a toy snooker table for Christmas. My mum had seen it in a shop window and asked what I thought of it as a Christmas present. I had bicycles and footballs, so it was something different. My father’s father was a very good player, although he died before I was born. The talent skipped a generation and within a couple of weeks, I was making 50 breaks. Even when I started winning it was still a hobby, I wasn’t thinking about a career.

I left school with no qualifications.

I look back now and think, if I hadn’t been good at snooker, what would I have done? I left school with no qualifications. Although I wouldn’t be bottom of the class at school, I certainly wasn’t near the top. My dad had a fruit and vegetable business with three shops, so whether I would have stayed in that business I’m not sure. 

When I won the Scottish Amateur snooker title aged 15, I could choose to play the World Amateur Championship, which I had a good chance of winning, or turn professional. In those days, you couldn’t just go to qualifying school and get on the professional tour. The only way was by winning your national championships or the World Amateur Championships. Myself, my father and my manager thought we might not get another chance. I did an interview in the Daily Record saying my ambition was to be world champion by the time I was 21 [which he achieved in 1990]. Some of that was bravado, but it was also setting myself a goal because people believed in
my talent. 

Scotland had no experience of successful snooker players, so even when I was winning junior tournaments the local papers would report it.

I have supported myself financially since I was 13. I bought all my own clothes and all the CDs I wanted by people like U2, Simple Minds and Phil Collins. Even as an amateur, I would get £500 for winning a tournament. For someone with no outgoings, it was incredible. But it was strange for my parents to have someone so independent. Scotland had no experience of successful snooker players, so even when I was winning junior tournaments the local papers would report it.

I was brought down to earth at home. My mum and dad had split up, so it was my mum, my brother and me in the house. I was just her son and Keith’s older brother. There was no favouritism or putting me up on a pedestal. One of the secrets of my success was that I never let any of it go to my head. 

I saw the huge drinking culture. I would tell my younger self to choose moderation and definitely avoid drugs – from what I have seen, they seem ridiculously easy to get hold of.

I would tell my younger self to try to be my own person a bit more. I had a very dominant figure as a manager. Ian [Doyle] took care of everything. It allowed me to concentrate on playing snooker, but it allowed him to dominate my life completely – choosing what suits I would wear, who I would see, telling me when I could and couldn’t see my girlfriend. He controlled my life. I have to counter that by saying that without him I wouldn’t have got to where I did. But there were times I resented the things he made me do.

I looked at Jimmy White gambling, drinking and going to nightclubs and thought it looked glamorous. But my management would say, “You are not going anywhere near that.” There were distractions everywhere if you wanted to go down that route. Alex Higgins struggled with drink all the way through his career – and he was not a nice drunk either. When he’d had a drink he was one to avoid. I saw the huge drinking culture. I would tell my younger self to choose moderation and definitely avoid drugs – from what I have seen, they seem ridiculously easy to get hold of.

We were seen as boring winning machines with no personality. I took my cue from Steve Davis, pardon the pun. He was the dominant player of the time and totally dedicated to the sport. He was clean living and all he wanted to do was be the best snooker player in the world. He didn’t speak to me when I started out. He didn’t really speak to anybody. We had very little interaction until we were both past our best. But we went down similar paths of being the dominant player and being hated, then getting more popular at the end of our careers because we started losing. The way we sacrificed things to get to the top is also similar. We both got divorced from our wives who we had our children with because, basically, when you are single-minded and want to get to the top, everything else comes second. 

I would tell my younger self to be more thoughtful. You have to be very selfish to be the best and stay the best, and I was number one for eight years

I would tell my younger self to be more thoughtful. You have to be very selfish to be the best and stay the best, and I was number one for eight years. But sometimes I was overly selfish and there were times I could have relented. So I would say chill out a little bit, make sure the other people in your life are happy. I don’t know if there is a better way of doing it, though, because I might not have had the success I did. I know it sounds pretty cold, but it is the truth. 

One of things I’m most proud of about my sons [he has two, Blaine and Carter] is how well-mannered and how appreciative they are of other people. It is so important. It amazes me how rude some people can be. But I learnt from my parents and Mandy, my ex-wife, and I brought up our kids to be very polite and appreciate people.

 

I have never subscribed to the British thing of liking the sporting underdog.  If Jimmy White had won the World Championship, he would have won Sports Personality of the Year by a mile. But he kept getting beaten in the final. To this day people ask if I felt guilty beating him and I don’t at all. I’m sure he would swap his popularity for a world title. I like serial winners. Michael Schumacher was a dominant winner, Roger Federer in tennis, I’m a massive Tiger Woods fan. People who win and then want to win again and again? That is what I had and what I appreciate in other people.  

As a 16-year-old I would never have dreamed of winning seven World Championship titles. I would tell my younger self to keep working hard and you will overcome Steve Davis – who I thought was this god of snooker – win more world titles than him and be the dominant player for 10 years. But I’m sure my 16-year-old self would say you are nuts, it is not going to happen. 

I remember spending £4,000 on a Versace leather jacket. Looking back, it still sends shivers down my spine.

I would tell my younger self, don’t spend so much on clothes. When I won my first major tournament, the Rothmans Grand Prix [in 1987], I got £80,000. My management took that and I just got a wage, but I remember spending £4,000 on a Versace leather jacket. Looking back, it still sends shivers down my spine. 

Every day someone asks who would win out of me and Ronnie O’Sullivan at our best. It would be very close. Ronnie is more of a talent – I could never play left-handed and the way he keeps switching is incredible. But on my day I would have beaten him. Maybe it is mental toughness, but I would back myself to win against anybody.

Read more interviews like this in Letter To My Younger Self