FOR SOME REASON, I remember the chef.
There he was, is big white hat sitting proudly atop his head, appearing in the media centre with remarkable promptness every time Ding Junhui won a match.
Press conferences in the UK are usually rather staid affairs and often sparsely attended but Chinese journalists and photographers swarmed around Ding that week, alternating between questions and asking for autographs. We were witnessing the arrival of a new star in snooker’s firmament.
This was the Haidian Stadium in Beijing, late March 2005. The China Open had returned to snooker’s calendar for the first time in three years. Little did we know the significance of the week.
Fast forward ten years and Ding is about to play in the quarter-finals of the Betfred World Championship. He is now a multi-garlanded champion of the sport. He’s won 11 ranking titles, including two UK Championships, plus the Masters. He’s made five competitive maximums and been world no.1 twice this season. At 28, he lies fifth on snooker’s all-time list of century break makers.
All that is missing from his glittering CV is the world title itself. If you’d have asked us a decade ago whether he would have won it by now, most would have answered in the affirmative.
But back then he was still a relative rookie, albeit one with much promise. He had enjoyed a fine junior career and was highly rated by those who had seen him play. He’d already been a wildcard at the Masters and was in his second year as a professional.
Like many new pros, though, Ding had found it difficult when thrown in – at a young age – against the old sweats of the circuit with their vast experience and highly effective match play. Results came at a trickle, not a rush.
World Snooker at this time was in a terrible state. Tobacco sponsorship had all but been stubbed out, offers of outward investment had been squandered and the circuit was shrinking. They had two new executives, though, who saw the promise of China and they got the Beijing event on as a one-year deal. Ding, to guarantee some local pulling power, was withdrawn from the tournament and then reinstated as a wildcard to prevent him from having to qualify. He dispatched Mark Davis 5-2 and then faced Peter Ebdon in the last 32.
Ebdon had championed Ding as the best teenager he had ever seen, some claim considering Ronnie O’Sullivan’s prowess at the same age – O’Sullivan, incidentally, had pulled out pre-tournament, claiming a back injury.
As it transpired, the pupil beat the master. Ding swiftly wiped the floor with Ebdon 5-0. I think this was the first time I saw the chef.
He, like many other waifs and strays, would surround Ding as he came to face the delighted press, suddenly sensing they had a major story developing. Ding was only 17. Some of the media were vaguely aware of who he was but to most he was a new face making considerable waves.
Ebdon was not so lucky. He was the recipient of perhaps the bluntest question I’ve ever seen a professional snooker player asked. It came from a cheerful young female journalist, who having seen him struggle in the face if Ding’s brilliance asked him simply: “Ebdon, how come you won the World Championship?”
To his credit, Ebdon, fresh from suffering a thumping whitewash, replied simply: “I must have been lucky.”
Ding beat Stuart Bingham and Marco Fu to reach the semi-finals. By now, the Chinese media was growing in number. It’s hard to believe, but a kind of fever was surging around Ding, in the way it might around a British player doing well at Wimbledon. On the day of the quarter-finals he celebrated his 18th birthday with cake and ice-cream. But the boy was becoming a man.
The semi-finals illustrated Ding’s snooker maturity. He had been taken around China at a young age by his father receiving the best available coaching and it showed as he took on Ken Doherty, still very much a top player and surely too clever for the prodigy.
In fact, Ding won two frames on the black to lead 3-0, almost made a century and then did make two tons to win 6-0. He was in the final.
Against him was Stephen Hendry, who had just won his 36th ranking title at the Malta Cup. Hendry was always popular in China, whose audiences seemed more willing than those in the UK to cheer for winners rather than the inevitable ‘plucky underdog.’
All finals have a certain buzz about them but this one had an atmosphere all of its own. It was west against east. It was the all-time legend against the hometown hero. It was the past against the future.
Hendry has been the future once, sweeping all before him with a dominance unsurpassed before or since. And experience looked as if it may tell when he came close to a century and then made one to lead 2-0, increasing his advantage to 4-1 in the early stages.
Ding could not have conceived of the TV viewing audience – later recorded as 110 million – but was aware of the now fanatical interest of the crowd. He pulled back to 4-4 and in the evening produced a performance of remarkable poise, making two centuries, including one in the clinching frame, to win the match 9-5. He had won eight of the final’s last nine frames.
As a wildcard he received no official prize money and actually went down in the rankings. This was just after Eddie Charlton had gone up two places despite dying when World Snooker forgot to remove him from the list. Even so, it was one of the most significant moments in all of snooker history. Chinese sponsors were now falling over themselves to invest in snooker. The sport boomed in China, with clubs opening up at a rapid rate. Youngsters began playing a sport they had perhaps not even heard of a week previously.
China became an important market, although this didn’t prevent the then unfit for purpose World Snooker sacking the two executives who had made the event happen in the first place. But even that lot couldn’t screw up the potential China held and within two years there was another Chinese ranking event. The number grew to five, fell to four last season and will fall again to three next season.
Why? Because booms are not permanent. It wasn’t in the UK either. Eventually, the interest level plateaus out. Viewing figures in China are still considerable but the ticket-selling policies of various promoters beggar belief, charging exorbitant prices that ordinary Chinese people simply cannot afford. This has led to a bizarre situation where fans turn up to venues seeking player autographs and pictures but cannot afford to actually watch them play.
But the interest is real. I’ve seen it. At the 2006 China Open, Ding was in action again but had been announced for the wrong table. Thus, a huge crowd gathered around a table which would actually feature Joe Swail v David Roe. When the audience discovered this, a stampede ensued to table 1 and I saw a fist-fight between members of the crowd over the few remaining seats. It was both surreal and brilliant.
Many Chinese players have taken to snooker in the wake of Ding’s success but none of them have come close to matching it. This is a surprise. A country of the size of China would have been expected to have produced another top 16 player, another regular tournament winner, by now.
But perhaps this points to a general stagnation within the sport. None of the big tournament winners in the decade since Ding first won the China Open were new faces. Mark Allen was already a professional. Judd Trump’s amateur career pointed to a golden future. Even Michael White had already won what was effectively the world amateur title. Some of the others – Stuart Bingham, Barry Hawkins, Ricky Walden et al – were well known in 2005.
The fact is, it isn’t just new Chinese faces that are lacking at the top level – it is new faces full stop.
So Ding Junhui faces Trump for a place in the World Championship semi-finals. All through the last ten years we’ve heard people claiming the World Championship will move to China – something they’ve heard others say and then repeated without knowing the facts.
Chinese promoters have shown an interest – as have others – but both the BBC and World Snooker’s Barry Hearn would not entertain a switch from the Crucible. At the same time, Hearn is keen to keep China on side at a time where 8-ball pool is making serious inroads into snooker’s domain. The Wuxi Classic, played in Ding’s home town, has fallen by the wayside. Ding was forced to qualify last year and didn’t. He will thankfully be in the World Cup which replaces it.
But who needs the World Championship when you have the world champion? It’s been a rocky road at times for Ding these last ten years – his meltdown against O’Sullivan in the 2007 Masters final was the low point; his five ranking titles last season was the high – but he remains China’s great hope for Crucible glory.
When you watch him play at his best, you think it impossible he could never win the sport’s greatest prize. We all know it isn’t as simple as that but, given his fan base back home, he would surely be the most popular world champion ever if he lasts the course until Bank Holiday Monday.
I wonder if the chef is still watching…
Photographs by Monique Limbos.