Ding Junhui is hoping to smile all the way to the Betfred World Championship title.
The 31-year-old struggled in his early years at the Crucible – in his adopted hometown Sheffield – going beyond the second round just twice in eight attempts.
But Ding looks finally to have conquered his Crucible demons after an appearance in the 2016 final was followed by a semi-final showing last year.
Yesterday he waltzed to a 10-3 victory over Chinese compatriot Xiao Guodong – the pair both train at the Steel City’s Star Academy – to secure a second-round meeting with either Anthony McGill or Ryan Day on Sunday.
Hailed as the ‘Yorkshire Dragon’ on his entrance to the Crucible arena by MC Rob Walker, Ding was roared on by a crowd who have taken this adopted Sheffielder to their hearts.
Leading 6-3 overnight – after initially trailing 2-0 – a relaxed Ding wasted little time in reeling off four successive frames to clinch victory.
It’s good to smile out there, it takes the pressure away if I play some bad shots. I played well in the end. I just went for my shots and made some breaks.Ding Junhui
He interacted with the crowd, sharing a smile after a piece of ill fortune on the table, and there was a big thumbs-up at the end.
“I’m confident in my form, but I try not to worry about form too much,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “I’m just looking forward to another chance.
“It’s good to smile out there, it takes the pressure away if I play some bad shots.
“I played well in the end. I just went for my shots and made some breaks.
“I didn’t play a lot of safety, I just went for the shots without caring. It surprised me.”
For a city billed as the home of snooker – having hosted the World Championship for over 40 years – Sheffield craves a local player to be champion.
Adam Duffy just missed out in the qualifiers – attempting to become the first player from the Steel City to compete at the Crucible – leaving Ding to carry local hopes.
He needed just 51 minutes yesterday and with breaks of 61, 51, 78 and 98 comfortably avoided becoming the latest seed to suffer a first-round exit.
The biggest casualty was defending champion Mark Selby, who lost to Joe Perry at the first hurdle.
Without the presence of the world No 1, who has beaten Ding in Sheffield on his last two visits, his bid to become the first Chinese player to be crowned world champion looks a lot healthier.
And not even a potential showdown with five-time champion and tournament favourite Ronnie O’Sullivan can deter Ding.
“Everyone is under pressure here, but Mark Selby had the most pressure because he was the defending champion,” explained Ding. “It surprised me that he lost in the first round.
“I’d like to play Ronnie O’Sullivan later in the tournament because I want to improve myself and I want to play the hardest ones to beat, to test myself,” added Ding, who has lived in Sheffield since he was a teenager, and is expecting his first child with wife Apple later this year.
Yesterday’s match between the world No 3 – whose only piece of silverware this season came at the Yushan World Open – and Xiao was watched by millions of snooker-mad fans in their homeland of China.
Ding had some kind words for his 29-year-old opponent.
“Xiao is always looking to beat me,” he said. “You could see in the first session he played quite well at the start to lead 2-0.
“He’s a good player, but he doesn’t have that much experience of beating the top 16. He needs more experience to improve.”
Luca Brecel became the fourth top-16 player to be eliminated as he suffered a 10-6 loss to Ricky Walden.
Brecel was 8-3 down, but won the next three frames to increase the pressure, only for qualifier Walden to hold off the comeback and get over the line.
“My mind was a bit scrambled, I was making a lot of mistakes, I just tried to clear my mind,” said Walden.
“(I was) lucky to get through there in the end. The qualifying... if you can manage to scrap your way through you are sharper for it. That’s (been) proven this week.”
Mark Williams, twice the world champion, was encountering no problems in his contest against Jimmy Robertson having built up a 7-2 lead.
At one point the Welshman stunned the crowd by sinking a green without looking when snookered.
That match will resume this morning.