All sports stars feel pressure to a certain extent, but when you’ve got the hopes of 1.3 billion people weighing on you, that pressure can become suffocating. China’s greatest sportsmen and women all either compete in individual events (Liu Xiang, Li Na, Lin Dan etc) or are head and shoulders above anyone else on their team (literally, in Yao Ming’s case), and so they rarely, if ever, have the chance to share that burden.
Still only 26, Ding Junhui has revolutionized the sport of snooker in China, and has already been the country’s top-ranked player for 10 years. In China, Ding is snooker, and given that Chinese athletes have been known to cry for “only” winning a silver medal at the Olympics, the public expects results. In Ding’s own words:
“When I play in China, people think I will win every tournament I play in. They say ‘it is not impossible – you are human’. I wish I was an alien.”
Just read that again. The pressure Ding feels from the Chinese people is so great that he actually said – and only half in jest, you suspect – that he wishes he were an alien.
Maybe it’s the pressure, maybe it’s Ding himself, or maybe it’s just the game: reigning world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan said this week that watching him trying to defend his world title would be like watching car crash television.
Seamless segue: any discussion of Ronnie O’Sullivan and China has to include this link to a post-game interview at the 2008 China Open in which he ask members of the press if they’d like to give him a blowjob. Seriously.
[UPDATE: Interesting quote – and high praise – from seven-time World champion Stephen Hendry on Ding: “I have got a sneaky suspicion for Ding this year. His temperament has impressed me over the last few years and his talent is not in doubt – there is no-one better when he is in the balls.” Ding leads Alan McManus 7-2 after the first session of their first-round match. Play resumes on Wednesday afternoon, UK time.]