Ding Junhui is the original Chinese superstar, and blazed a trail paving the way for both a large number of lucrative tournaments to be staged in the country - while acting as the inspiration and talisman for the current wave of young talent from his home nation sweeping through snooker.
Having flown the flag for so many years Ding has become almost China’s forgotten hero after the years of success that saw him enjoy UK Championship successes as part of a haul of 14 ranking titles, plus a Masters triumph. Yet despite seemingly having been around forever, he is only 34 – still young enough in snooker terms to do plenty more damage.
A former world No1 and a Betfred World Championship finalist in 2016, the trend in terms of results and rankings has been largely downward for Ding for four years, interrupted only by the third of his UK wins in December 2019 which came somewhat out of the blue.
There have been few better sights in snooker over the past 17 years, since he beat Stephen Hendry in the China Open final as a teenager to propel himself onto the big stage, than Ding at his majestic best reeling off the frames with the cue ball on a string. Leading players from Ronnie O’Sullivan down all have huge respect for his abilities.
And in snooker-mad China, Ding, now No32, has also had to deal with pressures that the current talented crop will not have to, simply due to the fact that there are several of them. So often over the past two decades he has been largely alone in a fierce spotlight especially at his home tournaments, with the ever-present additional pressure to become the first Asian world champion.
Apart from that loss in the final to Mark Selby six years ago at the Crucible, Sheffield – despite it being his adopted home for so long – has not been the happiest hunting ground for Ding.
But though Ding readily concedes it may well now not be him that gets to be the first Chinese winner of the biggest prize in the game, he stresses that for him the dream remains real and achievable, and one he will hold every day until he finally packs away his cue for good.
For all these reasons it was good to see flashes of the real Ding at the Turkish Masters, where in two matches in a row against Rob Milkins and world No5 Kyren Wilson he recovered from poor starts to win four frames in a row for back-to-back comeback wins.
And that set up a highly intriguing and symbolic Friday clash with teenage amateur Si Jiahui, yet another very talented prospect, who has been tearing it up on the secondary tour this season and will join the ranks of the pros later this year after winning the prestigious WSF amateur Championship.
Ding said: “I have got the feeling to play again – now I just need to play well right from the start of matches. Two matches in Turkey I have been 4-1 and 3-1 down before I started to play. I don’t know why, it is a weird thing but you can’t afford to do that all the time against big players in big tournaments.
“I have been practising very hard this season, and I think I am getting some feel back out there. With all these Chinese players above me in the rankings, I can be more relaxed.
“People are keeping an eye on them, and maybe that’s good for me. But I am very proud of the young players coming through, because some of them used me to inspire themselves.
“I never thought I would be at the top in China forever, in sport there will always be someone to take over your place, even though I am trying very hard to get back to the top. And right now it isn’t just one that is looking very strong, but three, four Chinese players, maybe more.
“There are Chinese players below the ones that have won titles who are working very hard and could have their day, their week. Who would have predicted Zhao Xintong would have won the UK. And as well as the tournaments over the last few years, they are growing by practising very hard against each other.
“Si Jiahui is playing very well and could do well on tour next season. He hits the ball very nicely, scores well and his safety is good so everything is ready for him. He just needs to play and win more matches to get his confidence up. But I am not the Chinese superstar any more – there are a few of them!
“It could be that now I will not be the first Chinese player to win a World Championship, and it could be one of the others. Anything can happen at the Crucible, it is the most difficult one to win as I know very well myself, keeping good form over the 17 days. I have tried so many times!
“But I am still young for a snooker player, even if not quite as young as these newer Chinese players and I still believe that I can win it. I will believe I can win the world title until the day I retire, and will give everything to try and make that happen.”
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