By Ivan Hirschowitz. Pictures by Tai Chengzhe
China’s top snooker player, Ding Junhui, turned 30 in April this year, and he has still not fulfilled his biggest remaining professional goal: to win the sport’s World Championship.
Jimmy White is often talked about as the best player never to lift the famous World Championship trophy, yet he has only won ten ranking tournaments in his career compared to Ding’s 12. Of the other nine players to have won more than seven ranking events, all have a world title to their name. The absence of a world crown is, without doubt, the glaring gap on Ding’s otherwise impressive snooker CV.
Yet, there is a sense among the snooker community that he is ready to achieve that Holy Grail at the famous Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, home of the World Championship since 1977. Ding reached the final last year and the semi-finals this year, having got as far as the last four only once previously in nine attempts. With the help of renowned coach Terry Griffiths, he has matured as a player and a person.
Unfortunately for Ding, the man he ran in to both in 2016 and 2017 was Mark Selby. An machine-like competitor who is so strong in every department of the game, so calm under pressure and so determined to achieve success, Selby has won three of the last four world titles and over twice as much prize money as any other player over the last two years. In short, the Englishman is the dominant player in the most competitive era snooker has ever known.
Defeat to Selby in this year’s tournament, by a narrow 17-15 scoreline, was tough to take for Ding. He had beaten Liang Wenbo, China’s second-best player, 13-12 in an epic second round match, and then scored one of the best wins of his career in the quarter-finals, seeing off Ronnie O’Sullivan 13-10. It was the first time he had beaten O’Sullivan at the Crucible.
At the end of the match there was a beautiful moment between the two players as they embraced on the stage. Asked afterwards what O’Sullivan had spoken into his ear, Ding revealed: “Ronnie said I look a different player, I’m looking stronger and he knows what happened.”
Ding’s mother, Chen Xijuan, tragically died earlier this year at the age of just 55 after a long battle against cancer. Courage prevailed for Ding as he decided to play on for the rest of the season and pursue his biggest ambition. From a journalist’s perspective, victory in Sheffield would have made a perfect bookmark to the story.
But Selby ended that dream, and Ding could not hide his disappointment in defeat. “I played well, but sometimes you have to take it, because it is sport,” he said. “I’ve got more experience here, I’m just over 30 and there is still a long way to go and I’ve got many years left here. I believe next year will be good. I can see myself improving a lot. I played with more confidence and more aggression this time.”
No doubt, Ding will be back at the Crucible next year as a serious challenger. And Chinese snooker fans can revel in the fact that the strength in depth behind him is greater than ever.
Two prodigious young talents, Zhou Yuelong, age 19, and Yan Bingtao, age 17, both made it through three qualifying rounds to earn a place in the final stages at the Crucible for the first time. Zhou was unlucky to draw Ding in the first round and lost 10-5, while Yan gave former champion Shaun Murphy an almighty scare before losing 10-8. Only one 17-year-old had previously won as many as eight frames on his debut: a certain Stephen Hendry who lost 10-8 to Willie Thorne back in 1986.
Zhou and Yan proved their massive potential at the snooker World Cup in 2015 when they went all the way to the title, beating experienced Scottish duo John Higgins and Stephen Maguire in the final. “I think we have just seen two future world champions,” said a shell-shocked Maguire.
After three seasons on the pro tour, Zhou has climbed rapidly into the world’s top 32, while Yan has just finished a remarkable debut season, jumping to 56th. The Rookie of the Year award was barely worth voting for as Yan won it by a landslide.
With an estimated 60 million regular players in China, snooker taught in many schools and an impressive grass roots structure, it’s no surprise that the country is now producing an array of players capable of success at the top level. That trend looks certain to continue and experts predict that within a decade half of the world’s top 16 players could be Chinese.
Last year, Neehao reported on China’s growing influence on snooker, both on the commercial side of the sport and the increasing success of Chinese players. That rapid development shows no signs of slowing down. During the 2017/18 season there will be four major ranking events in China, plus a World Cup event in Wuxi in July.
Speaking about this growth during the World Championship, World Snooker Chairman Barry Hearn said: “Our overall prize money has increased to £12 million this season and we are currently in discussions about fundamental changes to our prize money structures in China. We have just signed a major new deal with CCTV, China’s national station, for ten years at an escalated rights fee. We are also close, after 12 months of negotiations, to agreeing a new digital rights deal in China.
“We will not be having more than five events in China, but those events will have significantly changed prize money structures to an extent that people will be impressed. People asked if the World Championship should move to China and we said no, because of its history at the Crucible. But China can create history, and we will support that.
“The secret is having a full calendar. Once you do, that is the end of the supply, and if you can then cultivate demand the prizes will only go one way. We have more demand than supply, and that is the reason for our success.”
Success cultivates success, and as World Snooker and its governing body the World Professional Billiards Association continues to work with the Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association on the sport’s growth in China, the future for snooker’s players and fans looks bright.
Sooner or later Ding – or another Chinese player – will win the World Championship. And then the future will be brighter still.