Ding Junhui plays with a ball during his exclusive interview with the China Daily in Beijing on May 5. The snooker star is enjoying a holiday after ending the season as the world No 4. Cui Meng / China Daily
Young Chinese snooker star has worked out how to cope with pressure under the bright lights of the professional game, Tang Yue discovers
While some Chinese fans are still lamenting Ding Junhui's narrow loss to Judd Trump in the semifinals of the recent World Snooker Championship, 24-year-old Ding is relishing a well-deserved holiday after an arduous season which saw his ranking climb to a career-high world No 4.
After losing in his first appearance in a Worlds semifinal, 17-15, Ding didn't hang around to watch the final between Englishman Trump and eventual champion Scotland's John Higgins, instead, he invited a bunch of friends and some Chinese reporters to his home, in Queen's Tower in Sheffield, for a barbecue.
However, it took quite a while for his official holiday to start as he was besieged by media immediately after arriving at the Beijing Capital International Airport last Wednesday.
Then, on Thursday, he sat down for an exclusive interview with China Daily after chatting with online fans at Sohu.com. Though still adjusting to the time difference, Ding, wearing a spotted T-shirt, jeans and a pair of blue Nike shoes, appeared relaxed and open.
"Now I am still a little tired. I will take a trip for about two weeks," said Ding, claiming he has no concrete plans about where to go just yet, although he has been to Maldives and considers it the most beautiful place he has visited as "the island was quiet and fun".
It is quite a different scenario from the years when he started off based in England in 2003. He also flew back to China after the snooker eason, but never stopped training.
"I won the national championship but being the domestic No 1 turned out to be little more than a minnow in the UK. So there was no way for me to put aside the cue during the off-season, I had to catch up," he said.
"I also played much fewer matches, notching only six or seven wins a year. Now I play more than 40 matches a year, so I have to rest myself whenever there is a chance," said Ding, who joked he almost fell asleep during the best-of-33 semi.
However, after his coming trip to destinations unknown, Ding will have another challenge before the next season cues off in July. He will try to catch up on his studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
He enrolled at the school of Economics and Management as a business administration major in 2007, but has studied there for less than half a year due to his tight snooker schedule. A dropout in junior high school as his father backed his future in snooker, Ding says the course is interesting and quite helpful in regards to "time management", but also admits he has "no feel for business yet" and has little business acumen.
As for reports that he has amassed more than 1 million pounds ($1.64 million) in prize money, Ding says he does not deal with the money side of things and hasn't counted his wealth yet.
But he does recognize the change in his fortunes.
"Life was harder when I first went to the UK. Now I can buy almost everything I need without worrying about the budget," he said.
Ding said he plans to buy a house in Sheffield soon and believes "there are certainly many years of snooker ahead" of him.
What remains constant is the fact that he still has no idea which brands he wears as he "knows nothing about shopping" and all of his clothes are gifts from friends.
He does not only appear at ease when talking about his coming holiday but also about the sport's most prestigious tournament, where he felt more comfortable than during any of his previous four experiences there.
After an easy victory over Jamie Burnett in the first round at the Worlds, he played basketball and golf with friends.
He also smiled and gestured to the audience, a sharp contrast to four years ago at Wembley when he broke down and cried after losing to Ronnie O'Sullivan in the Masters' final.
"I don't prepare for the matches so crazily nowadays. I just take it easy and enjoy my life," said Ding. "I'm also more experienced during competitions; especially in terms of managing my emotions."
Ding shot to international prominence in 2002, when he became the youngest winner of the World Under-21 Championship at the age of 15. In 2006, he became the only third teenager, after O'Sullivan and Higgins, to win three ranking titles after claiming the Northern Ireland Trophy.
He went on to become the youngest player to make a 147 break during a televised session on his way to victory over Anthony Hamilton in the opening round of the 2007 Masters. However, losing the final turned out to be a turning point on his rising path.
He had a losing streak in the first round of ranking tournaments for the rest of the season and failed to reach a single semifinal the following season.
His victory at the 2009 UK Championship marked his comeback and he continued that good form through to this past season, in which he delivered his most consistent performances and won two ranking tournaments while also reaching two semis.
"In those difficult years I kind of lost confidence. I was doing OK in training but found it hard to concentrate during matches. In snooker, if you lose concentration, you lose everything," Ding said. "However, it also provided me with some much-needed lessons. It was really hard to tough it out. But only when you come through it, you know how good you can be and how much you have learnt from it."
A more mature Ding has become a national icon. Last year, Ding, together with another four Chinese sports stars, including all-star NBA player Yao Ming, starred in a national image film, which was broadcast by CNN and shown in Times Square in New York. Ding, then 23, was the youngest athlete on show and the only one from a non-Olympic sport.
He also was voted among the Top Ten Outstanding Chinese Young Persons in the UK, also known as the Big Ben Award, last month, for which he gained the most votes.
While a lot of fans and his coach, Cai Jianzhong, expect him to be the first world No 1 from Asia, the soft-spoken player appears humble about the lofty target.
"I just let it be. As long as I try my best, I feel OK," he said, while twirling a ball at the table. "I'm not alone in working for that, you know, other players are working hard too. So I just try to do my part."
(China Daily 05/11/2011 page23)