Marco Fu

As China's darling, Ding has key role in East v West star wars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am


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Strip away the veneer of sophistication from China's most famous snooker star and what you will get is Ding Junhui, all excited and hopeful that he might be able to bump into his all-action idol Jackie Chan when he arrives in town next week for a showdown against the world's top players.

'I admire Jackie Chan and I have probably watched most of his movies. He is the pride of the nation,' says Ding. 'I have still not met him, and I hope I can meet him one day.'

The cue-ball is in the corner of the organisers of the Euro-Asia Master Challenge to be held at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium from Thursday. Ding has a wish. If Jackie Chan is in town, perhaps they might convince him to come and watch one of the most famous sportsmen in China.

Four of Europe's leading players will take on four Asians in an East versus West showdown. The European contingent includes world number one John Higgins, Ken Doherty (number four), Ronnie O'Sullivan (five) and Stephen Hendry (eight). Higgins is the reigning world champion, a mantle all the others have held previously. Ding leads the Asian challenge, which also has Hong Kong's Marco Fu Ka-chun, and Thai duo James Wattana and Supoj Saenla.

Ding is being modest when he describes the Hong Kong kung fu star as 'the pride of the nation', for he, himself, is also held in very high regard back home. Such is his popularity across China, it is estimated more than 100 million viewers switch on CCTV when he addresses the green baize.

Together with NBA star Yao Ming and Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang, Ding is among the most recognisable faces in China. His brand recognition is more remarkable considering snooker is not even an Olympic sport.

And this is only the beginning for the 20-year-old from Jiangsu province. O'Sullivan, Ding's boyhood idol, predicts that he could be the biggest star to ever play the game.

'If he carries on improving and gets a few more bits to his game he will be a multiple world champion. Tennis has Roger Federer, golf has Tiger Woods, Ding could do the same for snooker,' says O'Sullivan.

Ding's talent has already made opponents sit up and take notice. He is ranked ninth in the world and it seems his biggest challenge could come from within as much as it might from opponents who have been left astounded by his wizardry.

'I want to be a world champion and the number one player in the world. That is my goal,' said Ding, an only child who started playing snooker when he was nine years old. 'I want to be the best player in the world.'

Since turning professional in 2003, Ding has won three ranking tournaments - the China Open in 2005, the UK Championship (2005) and the Northern Ireland Trophy (2006). He has scored famous victories over O'Sullivan and Steve Davis.

Ding's ambition to be the best is not restricted to the sport only. He is polishing up his English too. In order to reply to a series of questions submitted by this newspaper, Ding needed them translated into Chinese, but it won't be long before he will feel confident enough to take on the media in English, especially back in Britain, the home of the professional snooker circuit.

'I started learning English when I arrived in Britain four years ago,' Ding said. 'Daily communication in English is not a problem now. But I'm learning more grammar and writing.'

When he is not living in Britain - eight to nine months a year is spent in Sheffield, England - Ding goes to university in Shanghai where he continues to improve his English.

'I can now carry out an interview in English. Of course, I use simple English, but I can express my sentiments,' said Ding.

Living most of the year in England has given Ding the opportunity to follow the English soccer Premiership closely.

'Most of my friends are English football fans. I was not interested in the beginning, but now I'm very keen and watch games in my spare time.

'Manchester United and Liverpool are my two favourite teams.'

Despite a tight schedule last December - when the professional ranking season is in full cry in the UK - Ding made himself available to represent China at the Asian Games in Doha. He was richly rewarded, finishing with three gold medals - individual, doubles and team event.

His sweeping success in Doha just confirmed his talent after the success of 2002 in Pusan when Ding, as a 15-year-old, won the Asian Games gold medal in the singles event to announce his arrival on the world stage.

According to Chinese sports officials, Ding has been instrumental in turning snooker into a mainstream sport in China, on par with table tennis and basketball. 'Ding is already a superstar,' Zhang Xiaodong, snooker director of the Multi-ball Administrative Centre, the governing body of the sport on the mainland, told the China Daily. 'He has the same reputation here as Yao Ming and Liu Xiang because he has brought snooker to an unprecedented height,' said Zhang.

It is understood track star Liu is also a huge fan of Ding. Liu joined millions watching the live coverage of Ding's clash with O'Sullivan during the prestigious British Masters in April.

'Liu is crazy about Ding,' said Liu's coach, Sun Haiping. 'He didn't sleep until four in the morning after the game.' Just hours after the match - which Ding lost - there were already more than 24,000 comments about the performance on China's leading website,

It will be Ding's turn to return the favour next August. 'Unfortunately snooker is not an Olympic sport. But I will be the number one cheerleader in Beijing. It will be the chance of a lifetime to see the Olympics in China and I will be there to cheer my countrymen on,' Ding said.

But in the meantime, Hong Kong fans will get the chance to cheer on the Chinese prodigy - and Ding will be hoping that Jackie Chan will be among them.

Gold standard

The number of gold medals Ding Junhui won at the Asian Games in Doha 3