The Master and the Apprentice

For me, one of the more interesting first round ties for this years World Championship is the all-Chinese clash between Ding Junhui and Liang Wenbo. As well as being a hugely importantly match to both players simply because it is the World Championship, could this also tell us more about just who will be China’s number one player for the next few years?

Ever since he burst onto the scene with that historic first ranking event title in China back in 2005, Ding has been the undisputed Chinese number one and has since gone on to add a further two titles to his collection. Still just 21 years old (amazing isn’t it?), in theory he still has a good decade left yet at the very highest level and as he has proven in the past, when he plays at his highest level then he can very hard to stop.

But of course it has now been quite a while since we have seen him produce that kind of snooker, in a ranking event at least. As has been well-documented, his form has not been the same since that Masters defeat to Ronnie O’Sullivan back in 2007, though I can’t help but feel that attributing his decline solely to that match is a little too simplistic. Perhaps other factors such as the pressure of being by far the most prominent player from a country as large as China have also played a part in his performances.

However, this might not be the case for much longer as Liang Wenbo’s rise up the rankings continues to gather momentum. Having come to the attention of the wider public with his spectacular run to the quarter-finals of the World Championship last season (further than Ding has ever managed),  Wenbo has followed it up with another decent season and will move into the top 32 bracket for 2009/10. While he is far from the finished article right now, his potting is simply sensational and on his day, with everything going in, he can cause anybody problems.

But can he defeat his more experienced countryman at the Crucible in what will be their first professional meeting? If Ding can play well and punish Liang’s misses (which will surely come over a best of 19 frame match given that he goes for almost anything), I would expect his superior all-round game to be too strong for him, but this is no certainty.

What Liang could also have in his favour is the fact that his top 32 status for next season is all but assured, whilst at the time of writing, Ding is in 14th place in the latest rankings and should he lose his opening round match in China, could have the added pressure of having to win to retain his top 16 place. It is stating the obvious to suggest that he would really want to avoid having to qualify for events again, but perhaps that is even more the case for Ding who at times appeared to struggle with the surroundings at Pontin’s and would suffer another blow to his confidence.

IF Liang were to come through and record a victory against Ding, could this have more significant ramifications for the future and signal the dawn of a new Chinese number one? Does Liang have the potential to go on and overtake Ding during the next few years and establish himself as his the number one star in China? Despite his obvious potential I still think he has a long way to go, as thrilling as he is to watch I still think that against one of the leading players in form his all or nothing style is going to be exposed. That is not to say that he won’t improve his safety game though.

What it would be though is a massive result in China because Ding is a huge icon over there and if he were to lose to another Chinese player, it would no doubt be a major story. In many ways it is a shame that they have been drawn together so early, imagine the publicity that the game would attract in China if the two were both to progress to the latter stages and meet in the quarter-finals. Both are clearly friends too, as I watched Li Hang take on Daniel Wells last week at the EISS, Ding and Wenbo were sat together immediately behind me giggling away about something and when Wenbo defeated Harold to qualify for the Crucible, Ding actually acted as a translator for him post-match!

But it is what it is and it will be very interesting to see how not just this match, but how their respective careers pan out during the next few years…