By Xiang Bin
Ding Junhui, considered one of the most talented snooker players in the world, became known as "wonder kid" by Chinese fans when, just turned 18, he won the 2005 China Snooker Open. But in recent years Ding's magic touch seems to have deserted him? So what's gone wrong with the wonder kid?
In March 2005, Ding Junhui celebrated his 18th birthday by reaching the final of the China Open in Beijing and defeating along the way world top-16 ranked players Peter Ebdon, Marco Fu and Ken Doherty. In the final he played against the then world number 3 Stephen Hendry and beat him by 9 frames to 5, to notch up his first major tournament win.
In December 2005, he beat another crop of top-16 players, Jimmy White, the late Paul Hunter and Joe Perry on his way to the final of another major tournament, the UK Championship at the Barbican Centre in York. This time he met resurgent snooker legend Steve Davis, and defeated him ten frames to six, in doing so becoming the first player from outside Britain or Ireland to win the UK title.
In the 2006 China Open he gave his home crowd a good run for their money, but lost 6-2 in the semi-finals to eventual winner Mark J. Williams.
On 19 August 2006, he beat Stephen Lee 6-1 to reach the final of the Northern Ireland Trophy, meeting Ronnie O'Sullivan in the final the following day. He beat "the Rocket" 9-6 to bring his major tournament tally up to three, only the third person to do so before his twentieth birthday; the others being O'Sullivan and John Higgins. The win pushed his provisional world ranking position up to fifth.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly and people began to compare him to Ronnie O'Sullivan, the most naturally talented player in the history of the game.
Victory seems out of reach for the wonder kid who doesn't enjoy the game anymore.
What's gone wrong?
But things started to go downhill for Ding after he won the Northern Ireland trophy. Since then he has not even progressed to the semi-final of a major tournament, let alone won a championship. His world ranking dropped from fifth to eleventh, and finally to 13th in the run up to the 2009 China Snooker Open, in which his performance once again let the home crowd down.
Ding started playing snooker at the age of nine, when his father took him to the Chinese national team training centre near Shanghai. His father persuaded his mother to sell their house to finance Ding's snooker career. This youngster practiced for eight hours every day.
Ding was a quiet, shy boy who had very few interests outside snooker. His passion for snooker was incredible. He enjoyed his daily training and looked forward to every competitive match. But as he grew up, he found things were not as simple as they had been. Due to his outstanding results and youth, he soon became an iconic figure, seen as key to the development of snooker in China, and even in Asia. China would never have been able to host two ranking tournaments if it had not been for him. But it was all too great a burden for a 21-year-old boy.
Although extremely talented, Ding is still not mature enough to handle the pressure. It's precisely the strain of trying to live up to impossibly high expectations that has cost him his passion and confidence. Suddenly the young wonder kid found he was no longer playing for himself but for the fans, for the commentators, even for his country. Sometimes it seems he doesn't enjoy the game anymore.
In the Saga Insurance Masters in January 2007, Ding met O'Sullivan in the final, and made a confident start, winning the first two frames. But O'Sullivan went on to produce what many regard as one of the finest displays of snooker ever seen on television. His dominance, along with the boisterous and hostile nature of the crowd, left Ding in tears during the twelfth frame, trailing 8-3 in the best of 19 frames contest. He appeared resigned to defeat, taking little time to consider his shots, and after the frame he shook hands with O'Sullivan, and the two walked arm in arm to the dressing rooms. It was the last frame before the mid-session interval, not the last frame of the match, but many people wondered whether Ding had conceded the match or was just congratulating O'Sullivan on his formidable play. He lost the next the frame and the match, and later claimed he had thought the contest was a "best of 17".
Since then, Ding's fragile temperament and inconsistency has been the main topic of conversation among his followers. The one-time wonder kid seems to have lost his bearings and forgotten how to win.
Ding's talent is beyond doubt. "Ding is the most talented player I have ever seen," said Peter Ebdon, winner of this year's China Open. Only 21, Ding still has time to learn how to deal with pressure and focus on the game. So his fans should give him some time and space, let the boy rediscover the pleasure of playing, and then perhaps he will get return to his winning ways.
(China.org.cn April 14, 2009)