Is 2018 the Year of the Ding or will Chinese snooker find another top dog?
China’s next generation is knocking on the door and Ding Junhui may no longer have to carry mainland hopes all on his shoulders
Nearly two years ago, snooker chief Barry Hearn said it is “inevitable” that Ding Junhui will one day win the game’s biggest prize, the World Championship.
China’s number one player Ding came close at the 2016 event, finishing runner-up to Mark Selby despite having to qualify for a place at the Crucible, and was beaten in last year’s semi-finals by the same man.
Before the 2016 tournament, Ding was outside the world’s top 16 after a bad year on the baize. But still Hearn was bold enough to make another prediction that half of the top 16 will be from China one day.
Hearn knows a thing or two – he is the man who introduced snooker to China in the early 1980s and he has been integral to its rise in the decades since.
Several players, Ronnie O’Sullivan and world number one Mark Selby among them, have long predicted the rise of Chinese snooker stars.
The Rocket has said that within the next decade most winners will come from China, while last year Selby echoed Hearn’s earlier sentiments about the make-up of the top 16.
In the meantime, Hearn himself has made another prediction – that 16 of the top 32 will be from China within the next five years.
Until recently, that would have been dismissed out of hand because Ding was Chinese snooker.
The flag bearer of the game on the mainland has carried the hopes of a nation since he burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old, winning the China Open in Beijing in 2005.
Ding has gone on to become the first Asian player to be ranked number one – he held the title for three weeks before Selby took it in February 2015 – and the first Chinese player to win a ranking tournament, predating Hong Kong’s trailblazing Marco Fu.
Now world number four, Ding is also two-thirds of the way to the illustrious triple crown of UK Masters, The Masters and World Championship titles, with 13 ranking event titles to his name.
But it is perhaps no longer the case that he alone carries hopes of Chinese snooker. Ding will go into the World Grand Prix next week as the top-ranked Chinese player but he is not the only one of his countryman in with a chance of winning the pot.
The tournament sees the 32 highest-earning players of the last 12 months descend on Preston’s Guild Hall to shoot it out for the £100,000 (HK$1.09 million) top prize.
There will be four other players from the mainland in the first round – Li Hang, Cao Yupeng, Xiao Gudong and Yan Bingtao.
Fu would have been there too but for surgery on a career-threatening eye problem forcing him into a break from the table, while last year’s losing finalist Liang Wenbao was still in the running until he came up short at the German Masters in Berlin two weeks back. World number 32 Zhou Yuelong also just missed out.
Aside from Ding, who’s middling year by his own standards has included winning the World Cup with Liang and the World Open, some of the other Chinese cuesmen come into the tournament on the backs of the best year of their careers.
Cao recorded a maximum 147 break at the Scottish Open in December and was a frame away from winning the final. Li reached the semi-final at the China Championship in Guangzhou – a career-best ranking performance – and hit his highest break of 143 at the 2017 World Open.
The best year, however, belonged to Yan. The 18-year-old is into only his second season on tour and rose to a career high 27 in the rankings, finishing as runner-up at the Northern Ireland Open, where he hit a 137 break. Since the turn of the year he also hit a career-best 138 break in qualifying for the China Open.
Great things are expected of Yan, who says Ding is his inspiration for picking up a cue. He won his tour card aged 14 by becoming the youngest ever player to win the Amateur Championship and is the first player born in 2000 to turn pro.
Now in his second season Yan seems ready to deliver and has solo silverware in his sights, having won the World Cup with Zhou Yuelong in 2015.
He’s been touted as a “future world champion” by Stephen Maguire – one of the beaten Scotland team that year along with John Higgins – and by Higgins last year when Yan defeated him in the International Championship in November.
Is this the year that China’s next generation comes of age? It seems inevitable.