Ding in Danger

Following another early exit from a ranking event, Ding Junhui is now under real pressure heading into the World Championship as his last 32 tie with Liang Wenbo becomes a potentially crucial match…

Just three years ago China’s number one player had just won the UK Championship, the second of the three ranking event titles that he claimed as a teenager and looked very much like he was developing into one of snooker’s elite players.

Since then however he has really struggled to find his very best form when he has really needed it and since winning the 2006 Northern Ireland Trophy, has failed to reach a single ranking event semi-final. At times this season he has looked to be getting closer to his best form, but somehow it just hasn’t quite translated into results.

The reasons for it only he knows, but the most commonly cited one is of course THAT infamous defeat to Ronnie O’Sullivan at the final of the 2007 Masters where he was reduced to tears at one point. I have no doubt that this has contributed to his subsequent problems insofar as other players have seen a weakness there and perhaps have more confidence when playing him, but as I have said before, can’t help but think that there is more to it. Indeed a few months before this match he suffered badly in a Premier League match against Jimmy White and a partisan crowd, so there were already signs of trouble before Wembley.

Being China’s number one player there is so much expectation on his young (yes he is still only 21 years old), shoulders and it must be a lot of pressure for him to deal with. Also living so far from home might well have played a part, again only he will know.

Whatever is the source of the problem, his woes were all too apparent today as he looked out of sorts and frustrated almost from the first ball, frankly as if he did not want to be there. Ding has never been the most expressive player out there but his body language in the arena just appears to be all wrong and has done for quite a while. His young opponent Xiao Guodong hardly played brilliant, but Ding just could not take his chances and just did not look up for it.

The frustrating thing when watching him is that he still has the talent, as demonstrated by his strong performances in the non-ranking events such as the Premier League and the World Series over the last couple of seasons, but in the high-pressure ranking events, everything seems to be such a struggle for him.

The problem now for Ding is that with three round one exits this season, as well and zero points from Bahrain and a poor 2007/8 to back it up, his top 16 place is now very much under threat.

Taking into account the points he will receive for the World Championship, Ding by my reckoning currently lies in 14th place on the provisional list with 27244 points. Following the results today (Tuesday), though, the players immediately behind him from 15th to 23rd are on 27175, 26607, 26300, 26050, 25652, 25419, 24894, 24700 and 24544 points, all with a chance to improve during the course of at least one of the two remaining events.

To illustrate the danger he is in, if Ding does go on to lose against Liang Wenbo at the Crucible, opening round victories for Barry Hawkins and Peter Ebdon in Sheffield, combined with a run to the quarter-finals from someone like Ricky Walden Mark King, Stuart Bingham or Jamie Cope, it would be enough to push Ding out of the 16. In addition, Walden and Dave Harold are still in the China Open so could overtake him by the end of this week.

While it is far from a certainty that Ding will be overtaken therefore, it could realistically happen and he will be fully aware of it which can only make things harder against Liang.

For the sake of the development of the game overseas and more to the point, Ding himself, I hope that he can just about stay in there for another season. Win or lose against Wenbo I think that he will just about do it but whatever happens, something has to change longer-term if Ding is going to become the star he looked certain to be a few seasons ago…