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Snooker Looks Forward to Bright Future
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After a punishing 5-1 first round defeat at the China Open, Li Hang was puzzled to find himself the center of media attention.

However, aged just 16 and beaten by an opponent of the calibre of world number 1 Ken Doherty, perhaps it was understandable that Li should be in such demand.

"I played quite a good game, didn't I?" he told reporters. "Playing against him was simply unbelievable. I'm used to watching him on television.

"I made some good pots, I mean, I think my boss was watching the match on TV and I don't know if there is any chance he can send me to the UK just like Ding Junhui. The match really gave me a lot of confidence."

Adding to the joy, his performance was hailed by his hero Doherty.

"Li is obviously impressive, he is young and talented," said Doherty. "I hope I can remember this match and have some more great matches like this in the future."

Li was not the only beneficiary.

The tournament, now in its third year, plays a crucial role in snooker's development in China. It is helping the sport switch from the back alleys to the mainstream, and at the same time it is also helping young talent like Li find a way into the professional ranks.

"The China Open is a door for Chinese players," said Zhang Xiaoning, director of the Multi-ball Games Administrative Center, the governing body of the sport in China. "Playing against the big names helps them know where they are going to go and how good they can be. They are on their way to becoming professionals."

Five out of eight Chinese wildcard players beat their pro opponents to reach the event's main draw, something that delighted Zhang.

"Everybody sees their improvement, it has given us the confidence to increase investment in the sport and import more international tournaments to China."

Before 2006 the State General Administration of Sports didn't give any financial support to this non-Olympic sport, and most teenage hopefuls would opt for jobs like coaching in local amateur clubs.

But Zhang said the Center has put one million yuan (130,000 U.S. dollars) into snooker in 2007, including supporting players in overseas events and developing the sport at the grassroots level. The budget is set to be increased next year.

In a bid to give home players more top-level experience, the Center will stage another top tournament the Shanghai Invitational at the end of the year. Negotiations are also underway with the World Snooker Association for some other small international events.

"We are working on bringing 10 Main Tour stages to China," said Zhang. "In this way, our players are able to win more ranking points and experience without paying that much."

Snooker's big names are behind the direction the sport is taking.

"China has made a strong impact on the sport, not only on its players but also on the growing atmosphere," said former world champion Jimmy White. "Everybody is learning to appreciate snooker, from fans, media, sponsors as well as officials."

Stephen Hendry echoed this point of view, saying the country is set to become a major player in the snooker world.

"I think China will become a major snooker base in the near future," he said. "They are getting more professional year by year, and I've seen great improvement.

"The tournament is great for the sport and great for Chinese fans. The idea to give local players eight wildcards is very good and the boys also proved they could play as well as their British counterparts."

Challenges, however, remain. After Ding Junhui was eliminated in round one, attendances at the Beijing University Students Gymnasium plummeted. During the final between Graham Dott and Jamie Cope on Sunday, only about 30 percent of the seats were taken.

The World Snooker Association, the global governing body of the sport, said they had learned from the tournament.

"The Chinese market has great potential, but it's a hard market and not easy to get involved," said Simon Leach, who heads the organization's Beijing office. "We want to help China promote the sport, and we are also learning to do it in the right way through the China Open."

He added that the England-based World Snooker Association is branching out to help promote the sport in China, including setting up its first overseas office in Beijing in 2005.

"We get to know more Chinese players, the national training system, the market, and now we are taking steps to improving," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency April 4, 2007)

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