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SNOOKER: We don't have any kids knocking on the door .. Scottish game is going to pot; STEPHEN HENDRY WORRIES ABOUT LACK OF NEW TALENT.

Byline: STEWART WEIR

SNOOKER superstar Stephen Hendry fears Scotland is unlikely to produce anyone to take over his mantle.

The seven-times world champion reckons the system is strangling the legion of hopefuls cueing up to follow in his footsteps.

Hendry says even former stars are packing it in because they can no longer endure the tortuous and soul- destroying rounds of small-town venues with virtually no crowds that is today's qualifying route to the top.

And he believes if nothing is done to promote promising kids quicker away from this daily grind they too will be calling it a day and the sport will face severe problems.

The 33-year-old Scottish legend said: "John Higgins, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Mark Williams and Stephen Lee came through within a few years of each other - but name one youngster who has emerged since then and been successful?

"Some people talk about emerging talent and mention the likes of Paul Hunter. But he's not emerging. He has definitely arrived.

"Paul has won major events but people forget he first burst on the scene as far back as the 1996 Regal Welsh when he made the quarter-finals at 17.

"John Higgins, Alan McManus and I are proven winners, individually and as a team," says the man who captained the Scots trio to World Cup glory in '96 and a Nations Cup victory in 2001.

"Okay, Chris Small did brilliantly to win the LG Cup a few months back and Graeme Dott is a top- 16 player. But again no-one's knocking at the door.

"Stephen Maguire won the world amateur title and has been on the main tour for three years. However his progress has been slow, simply because of the qualifying system.

"Stephen is now 21 and by that age I was world champion!

"There is nothing to fast track young talent through to the major finals and venues which is where you really learn your trade - not cooped up in some room with just you, your opponent and a referee in a town in the middle of nowhere, trying to win four, five or six matches just to get to the main event. It's like a battery system.

"It's soul destroying for anyone. Look at the players who have gone down the rankings and ended up playing in qualifying events.

"They've never come back and many have chucked it rather than try to make a living in those conditions.

"Some of these guys have played at the top so just think how tough it must be for those trying to make it.

"Okay, some will say the same system unearthed Ronnie O'Sullivan but he really was an exception, losing just two matches out of 80- odd at Blackpool. No-one will ever do it again.

"We need fresh blood in the game. But that's not the only thing snooker is being starved of."

Hendry and old foe and friend Steve Davis tried to bring about change in the game. They attempted to remove those in power at the game's Bristol headquarters and replace them with others who have much more business acumen. They didn't succeed and rather than try again, for once Hendry has given up.

He said: "I'm finished with politics in our game. I'll concentrate on playing and if I'm proved right on a few matters I'll take no pleasure from that.

"Snooker is in a terrible state. The governing body, the World Professional and Billiards Association, is nearly pounds 3million in debt, tobacco sponsors are on the way out and no new backers are coming in.

"Of course I'm concerned. But if others can't see the consequences the likes of Steve and I have better things to do than try to explain facts to those who won't listen.

"Football and Formula 1 are in difficulty and they are global sports with global markets and audiences.

"So why do some people think snooker will be okay when every other sport is toiling with investment, sponsorship, advertisers and the like? I've had a tremendously successful career and love the sport. But if others can't see what could be around the corner that's their look -out.

"I'll get on with what's best for Stephen Hendry."

And that means winning. He came so close to landing an eighth world crown last May, going down 18- 17 to Peter Ebdon in an epic final.

The loss has taken time to get over but Hendry is determined to stay a winner, even if it doesn't come as naturally as it did. He said: "My enthusiasm for tournaments is still there, especially the bigger ones at large venues like the Masters at Wembley and the Crucible for the World Championship.

"It can be a bit of a chore the rest of the time. I'm not as keen to practise five and six hours a day when once I couldn't wait, although I know I have to make the effort.

"Working with Terry Griffiths, I've changed a few things in practice and that's made it a bit more enjoyable.

"Over the last year or 18 months my game has got back to somewhere near what it once was and a lot of that is down to working with Terry.

"He knows what it is to play, to be a professional, to handle situations and, most importantly, to win.

"Terry doesn't like hearing it but I owe a lot to him for getting me to the final of the world championship.

"What happened once I was there though was down to me.

"I played well throughout the tournament, especially beating Ronnie O'Sullivan in the semi-final which made defeat against Peter even harder to take.

"It wasn't a nice feeling and every now and again, pushing a trolley round the shops, watching the telly or sitting at the traffic lights, it comes back .

"I had a real chance of winning the world title again. It might be as close as I ever come to making it eight at the Crucible. Who knows?

"But before I won for the seventh time in 1999 I said I had another one in me and I still have that feeling. The only difference is I might have to work a wee bit harder and have a wee bit more luck on my side.

"However, I'm sure every player will tell you exactly the same."
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jan 5, 2003
Words:1056
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