It seems an age ago that Ding Junhui was equalling a record set by Stephen Hendry by winning five ranking titles in the 2013-14 season.
Even though that campaign ended in more Crucible disappointment with a first-round shock world championship loss to Michael Wasley, Ding already had plenty of credit in the bank.
Hailed as a future world champion from the age of 15 and admired by his fellow top professionals for a technique that at his best can look flawless, Ding has delivered in many ways.
At the age of just 28 he has already racked up 11 ranking titles and a Masters crown, putting him in joint-sixth in the all-time list alongside Neil Robertson. Both should win many more.
But Ding’s latest appearance of a listless season in which he has looked totally out of sorts came at Alexandra Palace in 6-4 defeat to world champion Stuart Bingham that was worse than the scoreline sounds.
Bar a 147 near miss Bingham was far from at his best, and after coming back from 3-1 down to 3-3 the ‘old’ Ding would have run away with the contest.
But much as with his loss to Adam Duffy at the UK Championship two months ago, at no stage did he look confident of winning.
Since the loss to Wasley some of the losses Ding has suffered almost defy belief. Good players can have bad runs of results, but they are usually against other top players or opponents playing out of their skin. That has often not been the case with Ding.
This season he has lost to Tian Pengfei in the German Masters qualifiers, and Duffy in York.
Last season he was embarrassingly thrashed 13-4 by Judd Trump at the Crucible, and there were also losses to Gary Wilson, Thepchaiya Un-Nooh, Lee Walker at the Welsh Open, James Cahill at the UK, Wang Zepeng at the International Championship and Oliver Brown in the Wuxi qualifiers.
There were also losses to Ryan Day, Joe Perry and Ricky Walden, very good players but ones Ding at his best would expect to beat.
So what has gone wrong, because Ding’s slump in form and results, with so much money to come off from 2013-14, has left him unthinkably in serious danger of having to run the gauntlet and qualify for this year’s world championship.
When Ding chose to be one of those coached by Terry Griffiths this season, it looked a great appointment for him. The 1979 world champion has helped players both technically and mentally, and it was this latter category where Ding looked in need of assistance.
But in what is presumably a source of frustration for Griffiths, it has been difficult to give it a fair crack. Ding has spent a lot of time in China this season between events.
When asked directly after his loss to Bingham about how it was going working with Griffiths, Ding was in near one-word mode, replying: “We work together”. When asked how difficult this was with him in China and Griffiths in England, he added: “We can talk on phones.” This may not be the ideal way to gain the maximum benefit from Griffiths’ skills and experience.
Then there is Ding’s path to the top. Make no mistake, it was not easy leaving China and his family to come to England as a shy 15-year-old and live and breathe snooker alone. Maybe it has caught up with him, and he needs a break and just to live a little. The unique pressures, commercial and otherwise in China, would make this very difficult for Ding but if it is in his best interests and might rekindle the fire in his belly, it could be worth it in the long run.
You also ask, much as we do for Premier League footballers, is he too comfortable and not as hungry? Ding is in a different financial stratosphere to most players including Ronnie O’Sullivan due to his Chinese deals and sponsorships. This could be a factor.
And then of course there is the snowball effect. Once it starts to go wrong, confidence takes a hike and the spiral down can be never-ending, it takes real character to haul yourself out.
When you hear other players say about Ding “he was about six inches out of position for the whole tournament”, you know the calibre of player you are talking about. Ding’s destiny has always seemed to be to win a world title, there is plenty of work to do to achieve that.
Photograph courtesy of Monique Limbos