Ding Junhui believes China will one day boast a world champion snooker player.
As the Betfred.com World Championship cues off at the Crucible in Sheffield this morning, 25-year-old Ding is leading the way in helping the Far East conquer the sport.
A record five Chinese players have qualified for this season’s Crucible, world No 10 Ding, Hong Kong’s Marco Fu, Liang Wenbo, 2011 Asian Under-21 champion Cao Yupeng and Liu Chuang.
Throw in 17-year-old Belgian teenager Luca Brecel - the youngest player to ever compete at the Crucible, beating Stephen Hendry’s record - Australian Neil Robertson and Ireland’s Ken Doherty and the days when the UK dominate the competition seem to be receding.
Ding - who has lived in Sheffield for five years and has just bought a house in his adopted city - came agonisingly close to Crucible success 12 months ago, when he let a semi-final lead slip to lose to Judd Trump.
Now he hopes to go one better this year when he faces Ryan Day in his first round match on Tuesday morning.
“I hope one day a Chinese player can win the World Championship, I am trying hard,” said Ding in an exclusive interview with the Yorkshire Post. “But winning the World Championship is very difficult, because of the long matches. There are still a lot of good young players in the UK and from Europe, they are getting better.
“Snooker is growing very quick in China. I remember four or five years going back to play a tournament in China, it was very easy to win. But now I lose all the time,” he joked.
“There are good young players in China, but they need to practice hard and come to see what snooker is like here because it’s very different. In China people can’t beat you, but here it’s a lot harder with players from all around the world.”
Despite helping China win snooker’s World Cup this year, partnering Liang Wenbo, and winning the Welsh Open, it has been a relatively poor season for Ding, failing to defend his Masters title and crashing out in the first round of the Australian Open.
But in the next 17 days of Crucible action he hopes to banish the memories of last year’s semi-final defeat to Trump where a risky long pott left him exposed the Bristol potter pounced to set-up a final with eventual winner John Higgins.
“The Crucible is a big game for everyone and I did well last year. I have been practicing hard, five or six hours a day.
“I never got through the second round before, so last year was very good. I was 15-14 up when I missed one positional shot. Judd was playing with so much confidence he came back and went 16-15 up.
“In the last frame I went for a crazy long shot and left him with an easy chance. He went on to take the frame and win the match. I was very disappointed and If i could have played it again I would get better safety. But that doesn’t matter, it’s a new tournament coming.”
Ding - whose family sold their home so their teenage son could follow his dreams of becoming a snooker star - Cao Yupeng and Liu Chuang all live and practice in Sheffield at the Star Snooker Academy.
Academy director Garry Baldrey has been Ding’s manager since first discovering him as a rookie 15-year-old, and he agrees with his protege that China will one day have a world champion.
“Almost certainly, one day there will be a Chinese World Champion,” said Baldrey. “With the Chinese, in particular, the majority of them are so dedicated.
“Whether it’s from their background, where they come from, there are a lot of sacrifices made by their families and they are very committed to the sport. That can only breed success, in my opinion. You get into life or sport what you put into it.
“Hopefully it will be Ding, it should be Ding, he’s too good not to be world champion but so was Jimmy White so you never know.”