Ding Junhui was in record-breaking form as he roared into a first Betfred World Championship final on Saturday at the Crucible.
The 29-year-old, for so long tipped to one day win a world title, beat Scotland’s Alan McManus 17-11 in Sheffield to take his place in the two-day showpiece.
And Ding, a qualifier this year after falling out of the elite top 16, set a new record of seven century breaks in any match at the iconic venue.
As a pair, he and the 45-year-old McManus set another record for the most centuries combined in any Crucible match, the world No29’s three bringing the total to 10.
Ding is the first Asian player to get to a Crucible final, and should he go on to lift the trophy, the long-time standard-bearer for the region will assuredly trigger a new wave of interest in the sport in the newer territories.
McManus though could take great pride from his performance not only in this match, but in the event as a whole. He was the oldest semi-finalist since Ray Reardon in 1985, and it was his first Crucible semi-final for 23 years.
Ding said: “It is something I have dreamed of for maybe 12 years, getting to a Crucible final.
“But I am not delighted yet – this is a new thing, but I want to win the title, and the tournament is not finished yet. The last match starts tomorrow, I have to be focused.
“There have been disappointments, and I had a bad run of form for 18 months – but the last two months I started to play well again, and have the confidence to beat anyone.
“My phone has almost blown up with messages of support from home.”
McManus said: “It was a good standard in the second session from me, and you are always disappointed when you lose. I could have been 13-11 or 12-12 overnight, rather than 14-10 down.
“But the best man won, and the scoring from Ding was up there with the best we have ever seen at the Crucible. I felt good, but also didn’t take all my chances.
“He is the favourite now in my eyes, and it will take a good performance to beat him. The only person who can stop him is himself.”
The 2002 world champion Peter Ebdon was the first of the top players to widely sing Ding’s praises, as he practised with him in Rushden when the shy 15-year-old first arrived in the UK.
Ebdon, 45, said: “I was just world champion when I first played Ding in practice, he had just come over as a 15-year-old to Rushden.
“And I couldn’t get near him, he was sensational. Keith Warren his former co-manager, used to say to me ‘This lad is the next Ronnie O’Sullivan or Jimmy White’.
“After practising with him, the very first day, I called Keith and said this lad is really, reaolly special and is going to be a superstar.
“He has found something in this tournament. I had said how difficult it would be for a qualifier to win with the format and finishing too close to the main event.
“But it has helped Ding, he used it as practice and to find some form, it sharpened him up. And he has gone on to show real strength of character.
“He is a classy player, a nice young man, and carries himself so well, especially given the huge weight of expectation on him from China from such a young age.
“I thought there was a turning point for him at the Crucible this year in the firs round. He lost a frame to Martin Gould who needed and got snookers, and Ding got angry – it fired him up.
“I had never seen him like that before, and it was a catalyst. Before, whatever he did was on pure talent. Maybe Terry Griffiths has helped unlock that.
“I have absolutely no idea why it has taken him so long to get to a world final. Having won 11 ranking titles, he is already one of the greats.
“But he just was not performing in Sheffield. People have played well against him, he has had a little bad luck, and it is just a very, very tough one to win.
“And I just so pleased that he is finally producing some of his best snooker at the World Championship where it matters most.”
Photograph courtesy of Monique Limbos