Where next for Ding Junhui?

Image supplied by Janie Watkins

With the Shanghai Masters coming up soon, now appears to be the perfect opportunity to consider the career of China’s best ever player Ding Junhui and to consider possible reasons for his recent struggles in ranking events.

Rise to stardom

Having started playing snooker at the age of nine, by the time he was fifteen he was already skilled enough to win the Asian Under 21 championship, Asian Championship and IBSF World under 21 Championship in 2002.

His rapid progress continued on the main tour where having turned professional in 2003, he recorded an impressive win over Joe Perry on his debut at the Wembley Masters in 2004. A year later he remarkably managed to capture his first ranking event title on home soil in China, a victory that significantly raised his profile, and that of snooker full stop in his homeland.

Soon after he managed to show that this was no fluke by winning the UK Championship and Northern Ireland Trophy – all before he reached the age of 20 which was a remarkable achievement, matched only by Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins.

At this point in time I was beginning to think that he could really be in a position to push on and possibly be one of the favourites for the Word Championship that season, maybe even challenging for a place at the very top of the rankings. He appeared to be nerveless, have all the shots required and although he did not always perform in the qualifying matches at Prestatyn, he appeared to have the temperament to handle himself on the big occasions.

Masters 2007

Returning to London for the Wembley Masters, Ding started the tournament in fine form, making his first career 147 in his opening match against Anthony Hamilton before going on to reach the final where he would face local favourite Ronnie O’Sullivan. Despite making a strong start to the match, Ding soon found himself overwhelmed by a combination of O’Sullivan’s incredible play and the boisterous, hostile home crowd. This continued to a point where Ding appeared to have all but given up and in fact tried to concede the match with O’Sullivan still one frame from victory. He continued after the mid-session interval however and his concession was attributed to him thinking that the final was a best of 17 match.

Image supplied by Janie Watkins

This was not the first time that Ding had appeared vulnerable to a partisan crowd however as just three months before during a Premier League match with Jimmy White, he appeared to again struggle to cope with the atmosphere, losing the match 5-1.

Since these defeats Ding just hasn’t looked like quite the same player to me, something borne out by the fact that he has not reached the semi-finals of a ranking event in the last 18 months. Although he remains a member of the top 16, Ding’s temperament has also increasingly looked questionable at times and his opponents have been able to take advantage of this.

What are the possible reasons for this? At 21 he is of course still very young and it cannot be easy to come up against a partisan crowd at Wembley like he did, particularly being in a foreign country halfway across the world from his homeland.

A season and a half has passed since that defeat however and it makes me wonder whether there is a deeper problem at the moment. Could it be that Ding is struggling with the pressure of leading China’s hopes at the very top of the game? The growth and interest in the sport over there is huge at the moment and particularly given his earlier successes, perhaps the levels of expectation placed upon him are causing him problems. Only Ding can answer this but if there is some truth to that theory then hopefully the emergence of Liang Wenbo this year will help to take some of the attention away from him.

The future

At just 21 years old he should still have the best years of his career ahead of him and you don’t simply lose the talent that fired him to those three titles a couple of years ago. Something needs to change however as having made a slow start to this season by losing his opening matches on the ranking circuit and the Premier League, Ding’s confidence will not be high at the moment. A good run in front of his home crowd in the upcoming Shanghai Masters might just give him the lift that he needs, though he will have to play well from the start to defeat the in-form Dave Harold. We shall see.