For 15 years there have been two unquestioned truths in snooker – that Ding Junhui, based on pure ability, would win a world title; and that as a trailblazing talisman for his country, that he would be the first Chinese player to do so.
Life and sport seldom stick to such a straightforward script and as he approaches a 31st birthday Ding, described by World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn as “the true superstar of the sport” over Ronnie O’Sullivan - based on the viewing figures he commands, and sponsorship he attracts – faces doubts as to whether he will fulfil those destinies.
Let it be noted that the boy who uprooted himself from his home Jiangsu province to come to Northamptonshire at the age of just 15, and devote himself utterly to the pursuit of snooker excellence and glory, hasn’t done badly.
Like other overseas players such as Australian Neil Robertson, Ding had it tough in a system of qualifying geared to the UK and Irish markets but has overcome those obstacles to have 13 ranking titles to his name, the currency by which success is often valued, and in addition a triumph at the prestigious and invitational Masters.
But at the ultimate proving ground at Crucible Theatre in what has become Ding’s adopted UK base in Sheffield, the current world No.4 has yet to lift the trophy. A dismal early record at the iconic venue, one that suggested some kind of mental block, has been much improved – but the real chances since 2011 to win the big one have come and gone.
Chinese journalist Tai Chengzhe, who has closely followed Ding’s career as closely as anyone, says: “It is not so clear-cut now about the world title. I would say no more than 50-50 that Ding will ever get to lift the trophy at the Crucible. He has had good chances since 2011, losing one semi-final to Judd Trump, another semi-final to Mark Selby, and a final to Selby.
“All of those matches have been close, it is not like he was playing Ronnie O’Sullivan blowing him off the table. You have to take such chances to win the biggest prize. And those losses, along with other years when he hasn’t got that far, have left scars and only made it more difficult.
“And also now we have this great new generation, a wave of talented kids coming through from China. Players like Yan Bingtao, still only 17 but in a ranking final this season, and Zhou Yuelong are developing and improving so fast. I expect them and maybe others to start winning titles, even the biggest events, pretty soon. With these outstanding prospects there is a major doubt as to whether Ding will be the first one to win at the Crucible.
When Ding comes up short it tends to get put down to a lack of focus, concentration, desire, determination and a poor attitude because his rivals know exactly how good he is. Former world champion Peter Ebdon was one of the first to practise with Ding and extol his virtues, and O’Sullivan has called him “his Chinese brother”.
Joe Perry, one of the tour’s senior professionals, has been heard to say that Ding’s superior positional play means that when he is on song, the cue ball is never more than about six inches away from where it should be, in total, throughout a whole event.
With as ever at this time of year all roads leading to the Crucible in April, Ding’s season has been something of a curate’s egg to date – victory at the World Open followed by a fallow and lacklustre period, not helped by a conjunctivitis-style eye condition that has hampered his efforts.
But there were clear signs at last week’s German Masters, where he lost a close quarter-final to world No3 Judd Trump, that Ding was looking more assertive and purposeful around the table, with the lapses in concentration kept to a minimum.
Ding, who has admitted a world title would be the “perfect” addition to his CV, says: “I know a lot of people especially home in China look at me and wonder why I haven’t won a world title, or I don’t win even more tournaments.
“But I have my own life plan, and only a certain amount of time in a year. I won’t put myself in all the events, and for example I wanted some time away from snooker this season.
“It has cost me in terms of money and probably ranking places in the future, and so it is good I feel the need to be back more and competing again. I need to come back strongly.
“There are tough times in snooker, I have had many struggles. It happens for all top players – the difference with Ronnie O’Sullivan, for example, is that his bad times last at most two months. For others, it can be six months, a year, two years.”
And Ding is only too aware of the generation he helped to inspire in China looking to hunt him down and emulate or surpass his achievements. The huge investment in infrastructure and coaching by the Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association can be seen in academies in Beijing and elsewhere – and the new wave also do not have the unique pressures faced by Ding as a young man.
He says: “Chinese snooker is certainly in good hands with the current wave of talent, the standard is very high among those young players. At whatever age – nine, 13, 15, whatever – there are lots of tournaments and the level is high. So they can turn professional quicker, and they learn fast from others.
“They are getting lots of experience and have plenty of chances to see how snooker is played by top players. For me, I started at nine, turned pro at 16, and had to do it all myself.
“They are getting more help than I did, that is for sure, and because of that they are growing up fast and this is a big help.
“When I was a teenager all the spotlight was on just me, now there are many sharing the pressure. But I do believe that one will come out of the pack and be the best.
“It is hard to say which one right now, but I think one will leave the rest behind. There isn’t much between Yan Bingtao, Zhou Yuelong and Zhao Xintong now, and there could be more.”
Ding’s legacy can already be measured in many ways, not least the queue of wannabes seeking to depose him in China, and the current promoter bidding war in Asia, with each trying to put on the biggest, best and most lucrative tournament – and the players reaping the benefit. But nothing would put the seal on things like success in Sheffield this year.