What Has Happened To Ding Junhui? Former World No1 Appears To Have Lost His Mojo

Ding has won one ranking title in the last four years
10:21, 30 Nov 2021

Ding Junhui will be missing from January’s prestigious Masters tournament - reserved exclusively for snooker’s top 16 players – for the first time since 2006 as an 18-year-old, following a latest fallow period that has lasted two years since his UK Championship win in 2019 in York. 

And his slump in form and results, arguably now lasting for six years punctuated by good runs in three big-money ranking tournaments that propped up his world ranking, is seeing people ask the question – is the ultra-talented Chinese superstar and former world No1 once touted as an absolute shoe-in to be a multiple world champion finished at the very top level? 

Even saying the words just sounds wrong about a 34-year-old blessed with sublime snooker skills who should by rights be at the very peak of his powers. To the natural ability he was born with and the dedication shown to get him to world No1, Ding should now be allying experience, savvy, know-how, match-play and an iron will to win. 

But those other attributes have been missing. And even Ding’s legendary cue ball control and break-building has been letting him down in the pressurised moments. 

From the moment Ding won his home China Open as a teenager against Stephen Hendry in the final in Beijing, he just seemed special. Trading home life for one in the UK to develop his craft was a huge move, and initially having turned pro at 16 and based in Northamptonshire before moving to Sheffield, tour life was tough.

But gradually titles started to come along, including a first of three UK wins in December 2005. Ding has in total won 14 ranking titles and a Masters crown, while at the same time earning the near-total respect of his peers. After years of under-achievement on snooker’s biggest stage, the Crucible Theatre, Ding reached his only Betfred World Championship final to date in 2016 – losing to Mark Selby. 

However the aura has been dimmed. Excepting the run to the final in Sheffield, the World Open win in Yushan in 2017 and the UK title in 2019, the overall trend over the calendar has been down for years, with Ding lacking the consistency shown by rivals Selby, Neil Robertson, Judd Trump and Ronnie O’Sullivan. 

Ding_Junhui1jpg

Ding has won one ranking title in the last four years. It is a far cry from the 2013-14 campaign when he claimed a then record-equalling five, since eclipsed by Trump with six. And he will plummet to No25 in the world rankings or below after the UK, a situation that could easily worsen further by the end of the season. 

In addition Ding, for so long China’s talisman, is down to No3 in the national rankings behind Masters champion Yan Bingtao and Zhou Yuelong – and with also Xiao Guodong and Zhao Xintong breathing down his neck, that might soon become No5. 

Few players – with Iran’s Hossein Vafaei and his visa issues being one exception – have missed as many tournaments as Ding in the last few years - some by choice, others through circumstance. And those absences have hurt him both in terms of ranking and also match sharpness when he does play. 

Speaking at the English Open at the start of November, Ding offered a window into the disruption to his work and family life during the pandemic. He said: “The last two years have been very difficult for everyone, and it has also been a problem for me. We are getting back a bit to normal on the tour, with fans back in at the tournaments. 

“My enthusiasm is not really back yet for the big events. I have only been back in the UK for three weeks and had to spend 10 days in quarantine, so it is hard getting the feeling back. And that has shown in some of my matches in this tournament. 

“I was back in China for around five months, but there was no one to play with there so I was practising on my own – and sometimes that is very difficult. Doing that for many months you can lose concentration.  

“I will be here now in the UK for some months including the shorter format events, and I plan to be here until the end of the season. My family are still in China, and we will have to see what happens in the next few months. That was very hard last season, and I came back alone again this time. 

“Hopefully they will be okay in Beijing and can come at some point. Firstly I have to keep myself safe, because I don’t want them worrying about me over here. Then the second thing is I don’t want to put my family in danger. Some people wear masks here, some do not. I can’t stop that, but I can protect myself and my family. I don’t really go out anywhere over here.” 

There can be little doubt that such factors have played a part in Ding’s current malaise – but that is almost certainly not the whole story, because there are long spells over the previous four years when his results and form have suffered similar prolonged lulls. 

It isn’t ability – so what is it? Record seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry observed at the UK Championship where Ding lost to Sam Craigie that he just didn’t appear to be that bothered about going out of the tournament. All players react differently, but Hendry’s point looked well made. 

Is Ding just too comfortable in life? Ding seems a very happy family man, and proud husband and father though not being with them must hurt.  

There have been plenty of reports and speculation that some of his commercial arrangements back in China provide an ample safety net that would more than compensate for any dip in prize money earned on the table. Figures of up to £500,000 per year have been mentioned. 

Many true fans of snooker will be hoping that Ding rediscovers his mojo. If he does, there is still plenty of time to add to his CV. But the doubts are growing.

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