IT’S CHINESE NEW YEAR this week and Ding Junhui will be aiming for a double celebration with a good run at the BetVictor Welsh Open.
Ding won this title in 2012 and was runner-up last year during a season in which he won five ranking titles. During the current campaign, though, he’s felt like something of a forgotten man.
Perhaps it proves that just as winning becomes a habit, so does losing, but Ding’s many fans will be hoping he turns things around soon. He plays Lee Walker in the first round at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff today.
There may be unreported factors off table affecting Ding’s performance on it. It may just be a slump. It happens to all players. Mark Selby had little form to speak of going to Berlin earlier this month but still won the German Masters. You feel that the very best players will come good eventually.
Even so, to go from such a stellar year to a relatively unproductive one is surely a cause for concern.
The new season began with Ding being fined a total of £5,000 for various minor rules violations – including not wishing to attend the World Snooker awards in London. He went to the qualifiers for the Wuxi Classic in a bad mood and was heavily beaten by an amateur.
As Ding is from Wuxi, this dealt an obvious blow to the tournament. It won’t be on the calendar next season, though a non-ranking replacement is likely.
He also missed out on qualifying for Chengdu’s International Championship and, aside from an Asian Tour win and run to the semi-finals of the Shanghai Masters, has had a quiet season to this point.
There’s enough snooker left during the campaign to rescue things but it has to start soon. Ding has qualified for Mumbai and Beijing. He is eligible to play in Llandudno and Bangkok too.
And then there is the Crucible, a venue he does not seem to warm to, but where he still has to be placed among the favourites to become world champion.
China’s love affair with snooker has waned a little. The recent eight ball pool event won by Selby had huge crowds and is starting to attract investment previously earmarked for snooker.
So Ding’s performances and success are critical to sustaining this important market. Ten years on from his sensational capture of the China Open as an 18 year-old, several more Chinese professionals have emerged but none as good as him. He is still the man this vast nation looks to for glory on the green baize.
2015 in China is the year of the sheep. Many of Ding’s opponents last season looked like lambs to the slaughter but suddenly the pressure is on him to produce the goods.
One good week is probably all it will take to end the mini-slump, so Cardiff represents a chance to get going again.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.