Ding Junhui takes a shot during his match against Ireland at the 2017 Little Swan Snooker World Cup in Wuxi, Jiangsu province on July 3. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
Ding Junhui looks a changed man. China's greatest ever snooker player has cut a diffident figure for much of his career, but he seems positively buoyant as he begins the new season at the World Cup in his hometown of Wuxi, Jiangsu province.
The world number four meets us minutes after he and Liang Wenbo finish off a routine 5-0 victory over Ireland's Ken Doherty and Fergal O'Brien, the echoes of the crowd's roars still reverberating around the corridors of Wuxi Sports Garden Stadium.
Due to a lack of alternatives, we are in a cramped, cluttered office behind the playing area that smells strongly of stale smoke. But Ding's trademark shy grin does not waver for a second.
Little seems to phase Ding these days. Where once the responsibility of representing China on the world stage seemed to weigh him down, at 30 years old he looks more energized than he has in years.
"After the World Championship, this is the first tournament [of the season]. I've been away practicing for two months, so I'm excited," he enthuses.
Ding's sense of anticipation stems from his feeling that the dream he's been chasing for half his life is finally within his grasp: Winning the fabled World Snooker Championship.
A World Championship title, the greatest prize in the sport, is the one glaring hole in Ding's otherwise immaculate snooker CV. Becoming the first Asian player to win the tournament is an obsession, both for him and for his millions of fans in China.
Ding has come agonizingly close the last two years. In 2016, he lost a close final 18-14 to Mark Selby—watched by an audience of more than 100 million people in China—before losing 17-15 to the same opponent in the 2017 semifinal, a match that was instantly recognized as an all-time classic.
Though those matches ended in defeat, Ding says he viewed both tournaments as a big step forward.
"I had good thinking, good form, every time this year and last year in the World Championship. I played very well in that tournament all the way to the semifinal, and I'm still confident [I'll] win the title," he says.
World number four Ding Junhui lines up a shot during his match against Ireland at the 2017 Little Swan Snooker World Cup in Wuxi on July 3. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
There is certainly a new sense of momentum about Ding. Whereas his run to the final in 2016 came almost out of the blue after an indifferent season, his performances in 2017 convinced a lot of people in the snooker world that he is finally a world champion in waiting.
After Ding defeated his childhood hero Ronnie O'Sullivan in the quarterfinal, six-time world champion Steve Davis said he had "answered a lot of questions at the Crucible that he has not answered before." O'Sullivan commented that Ding looked "a different player".
According to Ding, the key to his improvement has been finally learning to cope with the enormous weight of expectation on his shoulders.
“Usually when I play the World Championship, there's too much pressure on that tournament so I lose the best part of [my game:] My break building, my spinning, cue action," he says. "I'm more focused now … I play every shot a bit quicker, and with less pressure."
"That's why it's different this year than before," he adds. "I failed a bit in the last few frames this year, but I will work harder and I will play better [next time]. Hopefully, I'll win it."
It's easy to see why it has taken Ding so long to reach this point. Even compared to other sports stars, his journey to fame and success has been arduous and discombobulating.
Determined to make it in professional snooker, Ding left home at just 15 years old to live and train in the UK. He made his base in Sheffield, just minutes from the Crucible Theatre, where the World Championship is held each year.
Unlike today, there was hardly any support network for young Chinese players, and Ding admits that the demands of adapting to a new culture, learning a new language, and breaking onto the tour tested him to the limit.
"I was scared because I'd never been that far away from home. I worried too much, in my normal days, how I'm living," he recalls. "The hardest thing was living there. How I stay on the tour … I learned a lot about living with myself."
But even as he struggled to adapt to life in England, he had been catapulted to stratospheric levels of fame back in China.
When he beat seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry to win the China Open in April 2005, days after his 18th birthday, 110 million people were watching on CCTV-5, the largest recorded audience for a snooker match in history.
If it took Ding a while to adjust to his rapid elevation to household name status, now he laughs it off. When asked how far he could walk out of the stadium before someone recognized him, he jokes: "Just out the door, that’s it!"
Thanks to the trail he blazed from China to Sheffield, many other young Chinese players are now following in his footsteps, and Ding can't help sound a little envious of the relatively stress-free transition many of them now enjoy to life in the UK.
"They are lucky. We know everything there. They're learning quick," he says. "It's a bit different to 10 years ago in the UK. There are more Chinese students, more Chinese people, you can live much easier than before. Sometimes you find living in the UK or China is not much different.”
Yet he is delighted by the rapid progress snooker has made in China since he turned pro.
"It's still growing up. Many, many young players. They are becoming stronger and they're playing well," he says. "I believe that the top 32, half will become Chinese players."
Two of those rising stars, Zhou Yuelong and Yan Bingtao, are also competing at the World Cup, and Ding singles them out as the most likely future champions from the pack of young Chinese hotshots.
But if his team faces Zhou and Yan in the latter stages of the tournament, Ding playfully predicts that there is only one likely winner: "Ours!" he laughs.
|Ding Junhui considers his next move during his match against Ireland at the 2017 Little Swan Snooker World Cup in Wuxi on July 3. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]|