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banner Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 17:25 GMT
Clash of the Titans

BBC snooker commentator Clive Everton asesses who would have been the greatest if Stephen Hendry and Joe Davis had played in the same era.

Stephen Hendry won seven world titles, Joe Davis 14, in the course of holding it unbeaten for 20 years.

Does that make Davis twice as good? It does not.

John Spencer, who won three world titles between 1969 and 1977, said the best players of his generation could have given those of Joe Davis' a 14 start per frame.

But he admitted they would have needed the same advantage themselves from the generation which followed his own.

This is not a matter of raw ability. Times change, games evolve. Each generation learns from the last.

A player can only be the best of his time but what would happen if we took Hendry and Davis in their respective primes, put them in a time machine and deposited them in an arena?

Potting

John Spencer (l) with Ray Reardon
John Spencer (l) commented on the generation gap
Davis grew up as a billiards player at a time when snooker was not taken seriously.

In making big breaks at billiards through a combination of pots, in/offs and cannons, the whole idea was to avoid having to attempt pots that could be missed.

He nevertheless always was a very reliable potter at short range and, as more snooker came to be played, at longer distances.

His long potting was excellent for the time but as far as sheer potting ability goes, he did not have the consistency of today's best players.

Nor did it come easily to him to stake everything on a pot from distance, which is very much a part of the modern game.

Hendry's best game revolves around potting an initial long ball to get in close for a break. Davis was more likely than Hendry to manoeuvre his opponent into a mistake to create the opening.

Break-building

"Joe was a great player before anyone else knew how to play the game," said his late brother, Fred.

His ball control, close in, was every bit as precise as that of today's best players.

Once he got in close, he seldom failed to take what was there and also had the skill to develop balls from awkward to pottable positions.

He brought into play many shots of this sort we now take for granted.

He did not have prodigious cue power in opening packs of reds and also suffered from the heavier ball, Crystalite, which was used until replaced by Super Crystalite in 1973.

Screw (back spin) could be obtained with the new ball with far less cue power.

Championship cloths have also become faster and finer so that clusters of reds separate more easily.

Throughout his career, Davis was constantly surpassing his own records and his total of six centuries in the 1946 final, his last, was thought amazing.

However, this was a match featuring the best of 145 frames so this strike rate now seems unremarkable, much as it is now unremarkable to run a four minute mile.

In his entire career, exhibitions and all, Davis made 687 centuries.

Joe Davis
Already, counting tournaments only, Hendry has made 514, including eight maximums. Davis' only maximum, big news as it was at the time, was made in an exhibition.

Safety and Tactical Play

Hendry has always relied very heavily on his breakmaking and has undoubtedly won more frames in a single scoring visit than any player in the game's history.

Even at his best, though, he has never won a strikingly high percentage of fragmentary frames, nor has he ever been adept at modifying his shot selection to a more tactical game if plan A does not work.

Generally, if he does not score heavily, he does not win.

Aided by his billiards knowledge, Davis had a consummate safety and tactical game, either in defence or in creating openings.

Temperament

Davis had a commanding, imperious, self-assured presence which intimidated some opponents.

He was a very strong character indeed but championship snooker in his day was much less a test of temperament and more a test of pure skill than it is now.

Best of 73 frames, spread over a week, was the accepted format in the world championship.

For certain finals it was increased to best of 145, spread over two weeks. In non-championship tournaments, matches were best of 37, spread over three days.

With the finish so distant from the start, there was little reason to be nervous until a match ran close and with so many frames to be played, they seldom did.

In the modern era, the staple fare for most tournaments is best of nine, rising to best of 17 for the UK Championship and most other finals.

The Embassy World Championship starts at best of 19 and rises progressively to best of 37 for the final.

This puts much more strain on the nervous system.

The Hendry of the 90s, his prime, proved himself time and again as the greatest player under pressure the game has seen.

Davis had the personality to do this and might have done so in modern times.

Stephen Hendry
But, excluding handicap tournaments, he never played a last frame decider in his entire career, partly because he was so clearly the best player of his era.

Lifetime Achievement

But for Davis, Snooker might never have been taken seriously as a competitive sport.

It was through his initiative that the world championship came into being in the 1926-7 season.

He took Snooker to its first peak as a public entertainment but devalued the championship by declining to enter - and thereby risking his reputation - after 1946.

It was clear for another 20 years that he was still the best player, so the title had a hollow ring.

Hendry's seven world titles, six Masters and five UKs have been won in the most competitive era snooker has ever known.

There have been so many good players on the circuit that the standard has constantly been driven upwards, whereas in Davis' day, there were only a handful of professionals.

Results were so predictable that, apart from the championship, every tournament was on handicap.

Hendry's achievements rest more exclusively in the realms of performance. His cue has done almost all his talking.

Davis was unarguably snooker's biggest fish in a much smaller pond but without his pioneering efforts on and off the table, the conditions for growth might never have been created.

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Clash of the Titans
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