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Ding Junhui: 'This year, I'm doing good'

Updated : 2017-07-07
By Dominic Morgan (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: 'This year, I'm doing good'
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]

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