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China's snooker progress right on cue
( 2004-01-30 09:00) (China Daily)

In 1997, a Beijing doctor got odds of 500-1 when he placed a US$350 bet on a Chinese player becoming world snooker champion by 2010.

Seven years later, the odds have tumbled to 10-1 and a tidal wave of interest in the sport in China has washed over 16-year-old Ding Junhui and 20-year-old Liu Song as they match skills with the world's elite players.

Ding has been given a wild card for the Masters tournament in London next week, and will make his debut against world No 16 Joe Perry. Liu became the first Chinese player to appear in the final stages of a world-ranking tournament when he appeared at the Welsh Open last week. He led Asia's top player, Marco Fu of Hong Kong, 3-2 before losing 5-3.

Fu was impressed. "He is a very good potter," he said of Liu. "Towards the end, he felt the pressure a bit. He played a few poor shots to let me in, which was lack of experience on his part.

"But overall he's got great potential and, hopefully, he'll do well in the coming tournaments."

The professional snooker circuit is heavily dominated by British players. The only member of the top 16 who hails from outside the British Isles is Australian Quinten Hann, the world No 14.

Only one Asian player, Thailand's James Wattana, has won a ranking event and his last success was in 1995.

The world's top 32 is rounded out by Fu, Malta's Tony Drago and Finland's Robin Hull. Now, the emergence of Ding and Liu suggests that China may play an important role in breaking the British stranglehold on the game's major titles.

Going for gold

Beijing's Ding was selected for the Masters at Wembley, which starts on Sunday, because of his impressive amateur record which includes winning the gold medal in the 2002 Asian Games.

He has won the world under-21 championship, the Asian championship and the Asian under-21 title and appeared in the semi-finals of the world amateur championship.

China's interest in snooker was nurtured to some extent by Matchroom, the management company run by sports promoter Barry Hearn, which took a series of invitational events to the country in the 1980s. They featured the top players of the decade - Steve Davis, Dennis Taylor and Terry Griffiths - as well as local hopefuls.

A world ranking tournament was staged in Guangzhou in 1990, but the Chinese market remained largely untapped with few players good enough to qualify for the professional circuit.

In 1996, Griffiths retired from competition and was appointed director of coaching by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, the governing body of the sport.

Under his guidance, coaches were sent around the world to give basic lessons in technique and provide expert advice to young snooker enthusiasts.

The coaching missions engendered real interest among schoolboys, who play snooker for hours at a time in the growing number of clubs around China.

Ding and Liu joined the professional circuit last September, although Liu missed his first scheduled event because of a mix-up over his visa application.

Natural ability

Great things are expected of Ding, but he has struggled to live up to those hopes, winning only six of his first 12 matches and failing to qualify for the final stages in any of the season's first six tournaments.

However, few players have made much of an impact in their first professional season and experts agree Ding has a natural ability which, coupled with more experience, should help him to achieve better results in the future.

Liu won four successive matches to qualify for the Welsh Open, including a 5-4 defeat of the vastly experienced former British Open champion and circuit veteran Fergal O'Brien.

Liu's competitive edge has been sharpened by living and practising in Wellingborough, a town in the east of England where management company First Artist have established an academy to help snooker's non-British contingent.

The academy is home to a clutch of Chinese and Thai players plus players from India, Brazil, Qatar, Bahrain, Singapore, Denmark and a number of other countries. Plans are in place to expand it further.

"We provide rented accommodation for the players to live in and a purpose-built playing area for them to practise in," said Academy director Keith Warren.

"We have a coach who is there full-time, and we provide English tutoring and Internet facilities.

"Snooker in China is really booming. Liu Song is only 16th in the Chinese rankings so that shows you the talent that's out there," Warren said.

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