Phil Haigh ✍️
Ding Junhui is at the UK Championship this season trying to win the event for a fourth time, but languishing at number 38 in the world, confidence is low and pressure is high.
The greatest Chinese player ever has had a couple of years badly hit by Covid, missing a number of events while he was back in China, and even when he is in the UK things have not been easy, with his family on the other side of the globe.
The former world number one has slid down the rankings, but is still playing good stuff, coming through UK Championship qualifying with wins over Thepchaiya Un-Nooh and Robert Milkins, while he has dominated other qualification matches he now has to play.
The 35-year-old has always been under severe pressure due to being the focus of an enormous nation’s attention. To give that some context, over 20 million people were watching his clash with Milkins on a Chinese stream, in a qualifier, far from the biggest stages in the sport.
He has long had to deal with this kind of attention, but has welcomed the emergence of Zhao Xintong, Yan Bingtao and Fan Zhengyi as tournament winners to share the load.
‘I think before winning tournaments it was much easier, after it has been big pressure for me,’ Ding said after beating Milkins.
‘Now it’s good because we can split the pressure. Xintong wins, Bingtao wins, Fan wins, so people are not always keeping their eye on me.
‘Sometimes I play bad, but the others ones play good, it’s good for me. When Chinese players are winning, we’re all happy, it’s what we want
‘I’m still trying to be the best Chinese player, I’m working hard to do better now and in the future.’
Ding shot to superstardom when he won the China Open two days after his 18th birthday, creating a snooker revolution in his home country and changing his life in the process.
He has gone on to achieve great success, but the way he speaks of his hopes for younger Chinese players, it sounds like he would have preferred a different, less intense experience.
‘There’s a lot of talented players but people put too much pressure on them,’ he said. ‘They think that when they win one they can win everything, but it’s not possible.
‘Hopefully they will be happy, they keep their mind clean, keep positive and just try to be happy. Try to have a good life here, there’s a long way to go.
‘At 18 or 20 we ask them to do too many things, it’s too young, they should enjoy some other parts of life, not put everything on snooker.’
Ding is not quite as much under the spotlight as he has been in the past, but he also puts pressure on himself as he looks to climb back to where he belongs, among the elite of the game.
He has reached one semi-final in the last two seasons, not lifting a title since the 2019 UK Championship and he admits that his confidence is low.
‘I’ve been a long time not winning matches like the UK Championship, the last two seasons have not been good, so I really wanted to win and play in the Barbican Centre,’ said Ding after qualifying for York.
‘I put some pressure on myself with that, but to stay in the tournament is good.
‘When you keep losing, you lose confidence. When you win, like Xintong wins the UK Championship and then the German Masters, he was so confident.
‘I need to work hard to get me back to that position. It’s not good at the moment. I’ll see what I can do, keep working hard, you don’t know what day it will happen.
‘I don’t think it’s one match and the confidence comes back. Recent matches I’ve won, made centuries, but then lost in the next round or two. It’s coming slowly, it will be better.’
Ding has been around a long time but is still a young man in snooker terms, over a decade younger than the current world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan.
He may have been short of deep runs of late but he has a lot of time to rediscover his best form, although he is not expecting his career to go on and on and on.
Jimmy White also came through qualifying at the UK Championship, and asked if he would still be playing at 60, Ding joked: ‘I don’t think I could play that good!’
However, even when presented with the facts that players are still winning titles into their late forties, Ding did not sound sure he would last that long.
‘It’s a bit hard for me to maybe keep playing, maybe play exhibitions back home in China,’ he said. ‘It depends on my family and what they need, it’s difficult.’
Ding takes on Barry Hawkins in the last 32 of the UK Championship on Sunday 13 November at 7pm.
For more stories like this, check our sport page.
This post appeared first on Snooker – Metro.