When Ding Junhui burst onto the snooker scene in spectacular fashion in 2005, many expected the Chinese star to dominate the sport for many years to come.
The then teenage star claimed his maiden ranking crown by winning the China Open in the April of that year. But it was the 18-year-old’s impressive 10-6 victory against Steve Davis, the six-time world champion, which saw him surprise many to win the prestigious UK Championship.
It wasn’t long before the gifted cueman was tipped to be a future world champion – and even to dominate the green baize game for years to come. However, Ding has yet to win snooker’s greatest prize, despite reaching the 2016 Crucible final. In fact, he has only been in the final once in 15 attempts and has now not won a major title for over two years.
Although he is far from a failure with a staggering 14 ranking titles, many observers have been shocked that triple UK winner Ding – and his compatriots – have not dominated the sport more.
China, of course, is a country who have been keen to snatch the World Championship from its spiritual home in Sheffield since 1977. Only former World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn prevented that from happening before he retired, making sure snooker stayed in South Yorkshire for the foreseeable future after his long affiliation with the venue – and his former star player Davis.
But the appetite for the sport in the Far East continues to grow every year and, finally, the new Chinese stars of the future are starting to flourish. The Chinese are famous for rolling out the red carpet for snooker players at their ever-extending list of tournaments. The professionals love the Hollywood treatment too, especially given the option of playing matches in Barnsley or Milton Keynes respectively.
However, it has taken over 15 years since Ding’s emergence for the Chinese to finally look like they will be a force to be reckoned with. Last season one of their brightest hopes, Yan Bingtao, delivered on the biggest stage by winning the Masters.
The youngster upset John Higgins, the four-time world champion, 10-8 in a epic showcase final. And not content with that success and lucrative £250,000 pay day, the now 21-year-old has made sure he’s not rested on his laurels.
This season Bingtao, who has recently invested in winnings in a new house, has reached two major semi-finals and a ranking quarter-final. He might not have won a second ranking title yet, but he heads to this year’s Masters in a confident mood, hungry to prove any doubters he’s not a one-hit wonder. And Bingtao has plenty of time on his side, just like fellow rising star – and compatriot – Zhao Xintong.
At 24, Xintong can no longer be regarded as a young prospect, but the talented left-hander still has plenty of time to make his mark in the sport, especially with many of the older generation of players now in the twilight of their careers.
Six-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan has suggested he’s got three more years left and has joked he will squeeze every ounce of his playing career given his contribution to the game. And while Higgins has reached four finals this season – and lost them all – the Scot knows he can’t play forever.
Just how long some of the players from the famed Class of 92 – Mark Williams is in that group – remains, well, is anybody’s guess.
Xintong showed his class to win the UK Championship this season, making him the second Chinese player to win one of snooker’s sought-after Triple Crown titles.
Xintong and Bingtao represent China’s best hopes of domination moving forward, although potting sensation Judd Trump, Neil Robertson and Mark Selby are, as usual, still likely to also be challenging for the big titles.
However, watch out for China’s Zhou Yuelong, who ranked world No 18, is on the cusp of breaking into the elite 16 rankings. Yuelong, 23, was a UK semi-finalist last season and holds much promise. His compatriots Xiao Guodong (No 30), Lu Ning (No 31) and Liang Wenbo (No 34) proves that more Chinese players than ever before occupy the higher echelons of the ranking table.
The question now is whether front-runners Xintong or Bingtao can fulfil their incredible potential and become multiple title-winners. And one day, will there be a Chinese winner of the World Championship?
*18+ | BeGambleAware