Seeing a sporting legend return to the stage following retirement arouses strong emotions and opinions across the board – and not just in the individual concerned.
Especially when you have been a dominant force in your particular field of expertise, it is first and foremost a risk. You put on the line all you have achieved, and there is a clear danger of tarnishing a hard-earned legacy if you fail to get anywhere close to previous heights and success and are but a pale shadow of your former self.
But on the plus side, there is – at least initially - a very full tank of goodwill to tap into from fans and media, with nostalgia seemingly playing an ever more important part in the national consciousness. And of course if a deep love of the game is paramount and clearly shines through, it is a chance simply to be back in a competitive environment in which once you delighted and thrived.
Which all leads us to the current intriguing comeback case of Stephen Hendry in snooker. To be clear, the Scot was and remains one of the greatest players ever to have picked up a cue. If he isn’t No1, it is only because Ronnie O’Sullivan - despite one fewer world title – is possessed of a genius, talent and longevity that defies rational analysis.
Hendry, now 52, changed the whole way snooker is played and whether knowingly or not almost every player to follow has been influenced by his attacking style, desire to finish frames in a single visit, and knowledge that it is boldness and bravery that wins you titles. In Hendry’s case, the haul was a record seven world crowns, and 36 ranking titles not to mention six Masters triumphs.
So having retired in 2012 after losing 13-2 to fellow Scot Stephen Maguire at the Crucible in the Betfred World Championship and become an uncompromising TV pundit, it stunned the snooker world in September 2020 to hear Hendry was coming out of retirement after being given a tour wildcard by then WST chairman Barry Hearn.
The main reasons for Hendry calling it a day in the first place were a dissatisfaction with his own standard, and also a large number of less high-profile tournaments that failed to get his juices flowing. So what has happened in the last 14 months cannot be easy to swallow.
Because Hendry’s comeback has to date been underwhelming, to say the least. After a latest loss, by 4-0 to Chris Wakelin at the English Open in Milton Keynes, there was clear frustration as he lashed out at those who have questioned and scrutinised him – including fellow pundit John Virgo and former world champion Stuart Bingham.
Hendry, who has won just three matches in 14 months, said: “I keep saying it, I’m enjoying the process, my practice is going really well, I’m getting stronger and stronger all the time. One of these matches I will play well and beat someone. It’s coming.
"There’s all sorts of bullsh*t being talked about it by players and all sorts, but I’m just enjoying the process, seeing how I can play the game and see where it takes me.
“Some people didn’t think I’d win one match, I’ve won three. It’s nothing to shout about, compared to what I did in my career. I’m not setting the world alight. Listen, I’m far from proving anyone wrong as regards to my comeback. Some of it, you wonder why they’re bothering but I guess it’s me and they’ve got to say something.”
Given what Hendry fairly says about the time needed to adapt and put Stephen Feeney’s coaching into practice, it looks to have been a strategic error not playing more last season. Hendry’s two-year wildcard gave him right of entry into almost all tour events, but he only played in the Gibraltar Open and the World Championship qualifiers.
Hendry is playing more this season, winning two matches and losing five, but clearly retains faith in the methods he is using. So the really big win, or deep run in a prestigious tournament that might make it all worthwhile, could yet be around the corner. But for now, it is a tough watch.
Should things continue in a similar vein, Hendry risks being bracketed with some true sporting legends whose comebacks have failed to take off.
Those would include basketball great Michael Jordan. Although his first comeback with the Chicago Bulls was glorious, the second at the Washington Wizards saw a player simply unable to reproduce the heroics for which he was famed, while still on a huge public stage.
And they would also include five-time Wimbledon tennis champion Bjorn Borg. The Swede retired aged just 26. He did briefly return almost a decade later still using the old wooden racket, and of that defeat in his first match back in his place of residence in Monte Carlo he said: “I just wanted to play again.” Hendry would no doubt empathise.
Boxers famously find it hard to leave the stage, and the ill-advised comeback of legend Muhammad Ali, already suffering physically from the effects of his career in 1980 – losing to Larry Holmes and then to Trevor Berbick – was excruciating. Long before that Joe Louis, another iconic heavyweight champion, came out of retirement to lose to an almost apologetic Rocky Marciano.
In swimming Ian Thorpe won five Olympic and 11 World Championship gold medals, but his attempt to return and qualify for the London 2012 Games ended in failure. And Mark Spitz, who won an incredible and at the time unprecedented seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, tried to come back for the Barcelona Games perhaps incentivised by a $1million carrot if he made it. But that bid, too, fell short.