THE CHINA OPEN, which starts on Monday, is Ding Junhui’s last opportunity for a confidence boost ahead of the Betfred World Championship in three weeks time.
China’s no.1 won five ranking titles last season but has one semi-final in Shanghai to show for the current campaign. He suffered first round exits recently in both Llandudno and Bangkok.
Ding hasn’t looked right all season, in fact not since being disproportionally fined for missing last year’s World Snooker dinner in London. That seemed to serve almost as an omen that the 2014/15 campaign would be markedly different to 2013/14, in which he appeared in six ranking finals.
It is now ten years since Ding’s sensational capture of the 2005 China Open, in which he beat Peter Ebdon, Ken Doherty and, in the final, Stephen Hendry to ignite the snooker boom in China which has resulted in many more ranking tournaments and several millions of pounds of investment into the circuit.
In the decade that has passed since, Ding has carried a huge weight of expectation on his back. Despite a few stumbles here and there, he has done so with professionalism and great success. He has now won 11 ranking titles, plus the Masters. Only the world title is missing from his CV.
China has also produced a number of other professionals, notably Liang Wenbo and Xiao Guodong – ranking finalists both – but nobody to come close to matching Ding’s stellar achievements.
The question, then, is whether Beijing will salvage Ding’s season or whether he needs a couple of months break from snooker to clear away the cobwebs and come back fresh again.
He starts out in the last 64 against Marcus Campbell, who he has never lost to and who is himself struggling. But the identity of his opponents is less significant than Ding’s overall performances, which will be watched more closely than ever this week.
It’s a crucial seven days in terms of the world rankings but the top 16 seeding race for the World Championship seems to now be Stephen Maguire’s to lose. He is the only player currently in the top 16 who can be overtaken, and it would require a considerable run by a player ranked below him.
Many players looked tired, frankly, not so much through playing so much snooker but with all the travelling it entails. This doesn’t mean a big-hitter won’t win the title but with attention turning towards Sheffield, the scope for a surprise champion is higher than normal.
Eurosport has live coverage all week, starting on Monday morning.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.