DING JUNHUI has grown up with the weight of a nation on his shoulders so the Chinese superstar has no problem carrying the hopes of his adopted hometown of Sheffield.
The 30-year-old has lived in the Steel City for over a decade, after moving to South Yorkshire as a fresh-faced teenager to further his dreams of being a top professional snooker player.
In snooker-mad China, he is watched by millions, as they crave a world champion.
But closer to home, and Sheffield – the city which celebrates 40 years of hosting the World Championship this year – has not produced AaCrucible competitor, never mind a player gifted enough to lift the ultimate prize.
So Ding carries the Sheffield crowd with him, noticable in his stunning 13-10 quarter-final win over five-times Crucible champion Ronnie O’Sullivan.
And he carried on that form yesterday, opening up a 5-3 advantage over defending champion Mark Selby, in a repeat of last year’s final.
I’m proud to have support from Ronnie, my family, the people of Sheffield and China,Ding Junhui
Twelve months ago, the world No 1 raced into a 6-0 lead which wqould prove unsurmountable.
But yesterday, a repeat opening collapse never looked likely as Ding showed the form which prompted O’Sullivan to back him to be crowned champion on Monday evening.
There was little to divide the pair in their best-of-33 contest, before Ding won the final three frames to lead 5-3 when they resume this morning.
Twice Ding took the lead, with breaks of 76 and 84, before Selby levelled with 68 and 99.
The Leicester cueman edged a 34-minute tactical battle to creep in front for the first time at 3-2, but Ding then took control, highlighted by a 110 break, to give him an overnight advantage.
“I’m proud to have support from Ronnie, my family, the people of Sheffield and China,” said Ding.
“I just try to do the best I can and this is my dream from when I was a child.
“Every year I am here and try to win titles, from last year I came through the qualifying to try and win the title, and this year I have more confidence.
“Mark Selby is No 1 and playing well at the moment.
“He is always favourite to win any tournament.
“He has had a good season but I have met him twice in finals this season and we have both won once. This is a big game for us.”
Four-time winner John Higgins held the initiative in the other semi-final after having the better of a scrappy encounter with Barry Hawkins.
The 41-year-old, playing in the last four at the Crucible for the first time since he last won the tournament in 2011, let slip a 4-0 opening to lead 5-3 going into today’s second session.
Hawkins, runner-up in 2013, appeared unable to settle before the break, but he finally got himself on the scoreboard after the restart, producing breaks of 62 and 71 to halve Higgins’s lead. Higgins, ranked sixth in the world, then recovered to take the seventh after missing another frame ball, before 38-year-old Hawkins wrapped up the final frame with a break of 74 to pull back to within two.