DING Junhui’s record in ranking tournaments this season is so remarkable it seems incongruous that he is not a red-hot favourite to win a first world title.
Yet the brooding presence of defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan in the draw – and to be precise, Ding’s half of the draw – ensures that is the case.
Ding, who turned 27 during his ‘home’ tournament in Beijing, equalled one of Stephen Hendry’s greatest records by beating Neil Robertson 10-5 in the China Open final.
Five ranking event wins in the same season is an incredible achievement, whether or not O’Sullivan was in the field.
But Ding has not yet cracked the O’Sullivan code, and the chances are he will need to this year if he is to finally lift the trophy in Sheffield.
The more titles Ding racks up over the course of this campaign, the more anti-climactic his 9-3 capitulation to O’Sullivan in the Welsh Open final appears.
The pair have not actually met anywhere near as many times as might be expected in big matches over distance.
Before the Newport final Ding had not played O’Sullivan in a ranking-event contest over the best of 17 frames or greater for seven years, a 10-2 loss at the World Championships.
And he has only ever beaten him once in a major tournament, eight years ago in the final of the Northern Ireland Trophy.
The most worrying aspect for Ding in Wales, where the headlines were grabbed by O’Sullivan's magnificent winning 147, was how poorly he played in that final. Is O’Sullivan that much in his head?
Many thought that showpiece was the chance for Ding to show he was genuinely ready to challenge O’Sullivan toe to toe, but he fluffed his lines – and it was not all down to the Rocket’s brilliance.
In seven appearances to date at the Crucible, Ding has been past the second round only twice, including one run to the semi-finals where he lost a thriller to Judd Trump. He has surely never been better prepared to go further.
Both Ding and world No1 Robertson will now be looking to do better in Sheffield than 12 months ago.
The Australian, suffering with a virus in Beijing, crashed out in the first round to Rob Milkins, while Ding lost in the quarter-finals to Barry Hawkins.
Ding is seeded to meet O’Sullivan over the best of 33 frames in the last four – and with all due respect to the many fine players involved, that is a match most neutrals would love to see.