Well that didn’t last very long. Tipped by many to become the next world snooker champion after his record-breaking season, China’s Ding Junhui lost to qualifier Michael Wasley 10-9 in the first round in what World Snooker’s official website called “one of the biggest first round shocks in Crucible history”.
Snooker may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s perhaps the best example of the Chinese taking over a sport in a short space of time. Since Ding Junhui won his first China Open title in 2005 as an 18-year-old (he added his second on Sunday), the sport has grown so much here that there are now 13 Chinese in the world’s top 100 players, and five of the season’s 11 full ranking tournaments now take place in China. In TV viewing terms, it’s now firmly established in the second tier of sports (with basketball and soccer the only true Tier 1 occupants).
Chinese snooker star Ding Junhui has just managed something that none of John Higgins, Mark WIlliams and even Ronnie O’Sullivan has ever achieved: winning three ranking titles in a row. He completed the hat-trick with a 10-9 victory over Marco Fu in the final of the International Championship in Chengdu, to go with his Shanghai Masters title in September and his Indian Open win last month.
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.