Teenage snooker sensation Ding Junhui's appearance in the final of the British Masters looks set to catapult him to the level of stardom enjoyed by NBA center Yao Ming and record-holding hurdler Liu Xiang.
Still a couple of months shy of his 20th birthday, Ding outclassed world No 1 Stephen Hendry en route to the final of the Masters on Sunday, a week after he replaced opponent Ronnie O'Sullivan as the youngest player to register a televised maximum 147 break.
Ding became the first Asian player to reach the final of the Masters, the most prestigious event in the sport, and despite losing 10-3 his exploits captivated his growing army of fans.
Public interest was so high that China Central Television (CCTV) was forced to reschedule its programming at the last minute to provide coverage of the final three rounds.
"Ding is already a superstar," said Zhang Xiaodong, snooker director of the Multi-ball Administrative Centre, the governing body of the sport in China. "He has the same reputation here as Yao Ming and Liu Xiang because he has brought snooker to an unprecedented height.
"In fact, his contribution is even greater as snooker used to be a street sport a few years ago, but now many kids dream of a professional career.
"Snooker is already one of the most popular sports in China, alongside table tennis and basketball. We couldn't have dreamed of this five year ago."
Hurlder Liu joined millions watching the live coverage of Ding's clash with Ronnie "Rocket" O'Sullivan, even though it did not start until midnight on Sunday.
"Liu is crazy about Ding," said Liu's coach Sun Haiping. "He didn't sleep until four in the morning!"
Just hours after the match there were already over 24,000 comments about Ding on China's leading website Sina.com.
In a poll conducted by the website, 58 percent of fans believe Ding will win more than two rankings tournaments, while 68 percent of them think he will make the top eight by the end of the season.
"He is one of the rarest talents that I have seen," said O'Sullivan. "There is no doubt in my mind that he will become a multiple World Champion."
"If he's going to keep playing like that, he'll be around the top four players for the next 10 to 15 years," said Hendry after his semifinal defeat.
It was at the China Open in 2005 that Ding announced his arrival at snooker's top table by defeating Hendry to win his first ranking tournament, in front of a television audience of 110 million.
More success was to come later that year when he won the UK championship by beating another of the greats of the game, Steve Davis.
The huge television ratings have not gone unnoticed by a sport still struggling to break out of its British heartland: World Snooker has its only staffed international office in Beijing.
Simon Leach, head of the Beijing Office, said the governing body is likely to bring a second ranking tournament, in Shanghai, to China this year, and the World Championships is also available for China in the near future.
Despite the loss on Sunday, Ding could leave with his head held high. He almost left too early, mistakenly offering his hand to concede defeat ahead of time after getting his sums wrong.
Ding began brightly, snatching the first two frames at a packed Wembley Arena in London, the second with a superb 109 break.
But for the next four frames it was all O'Sullivan, who went to the mid-session break with a 5-3 lead.
Ding missed a long red and O'Sullivan coolly slotted home a brilliant 96 break to increase his lead to three frames. And that lead soon became four when Ding overcut a red to the top left pocket. The 1995 and 2005 champion pounced eith a 66 break.
Ding began to look way off the pace, clearly troubled by the noisy partisan crowd, and O'Sullivan was not going to miss out. He quickly made it 8-3 with yet another superb break.
The onslaught continued in the next frame and, with a stunning 143 break - the second highest of the tournament after Ding's 147 maximum in the wildcard round - O'Sullivan took himself within two frames of victory.
After Ding mistakenly attempted to concede the match before the first interval of the session, O'Sullivan, a supremely talented potter who holds the world record for fastest 147 but whose career has been hindered by bouts of clinical depression, put a comforting arm around his young opponent as they left the arena.
The players did return after a 20-minute break, but a World Snooker spokesman confirmed that Ding had thought the match was the best-of-17 frames instead of the scheduled 19.
It made little difference as O'Sullivan, with a break of 74, won the first frame after the interval to secure this year's title as Ding looked on in tears.
Ding said he was upset by some of the comments from the crowd.
"It is very different to events like the China Open because the fans go in groups and I felt very alone here," he explained.
"I was a bit annoyed with some of the comments because I couldn't concentrate."
Agencies contributed to this report
(China Daily January 23, 2007)