Ding Junhui didn’t know if he’d ever experience the winning feeling again.
When he arrived in York for this year’s Betway UK Championship, Ding hadn’t won a ranking competition for over two years. He’d not even come close.
Since lifting the World Open title in 2017, he’d failed to progress beyond the second round in 10 of his last 24 ranking tournaments and fallen in the first round in three of his previous four.
His main objective in the 2019 UK Championship was just to cling onto his place in the top 16 so that he could take his place at The Masters in January. Though he previously had a reputation as one of the top players on the circuit – he had won 22 titles, including the UK Championship twice and The Masters once – none of his major wins have come since 2011.
“For two years I have done nothing,” said Chinese, after beating Stephen Maguire 10-6 in Sunday’s Betway UK Championship final. “I was worrying about not doing well and asking myself if I would win again.”
The answer, up to now, had always been no.
The reasons for Ding’s plunge go beyond the snooker table.
He has long lived with the burden of being one of the most celebrated and adored Chinese sportspeople. While snooker may no longer produce the household stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s in the UK, it’s powerful influence has transferred to the Far East.
It was estimated that 100 million people watched through the night as he lost the 2016 World Championship final to Mark Selby – “and this is the small figure probably,” he said at the time.
It’s fair to assume, then, that a similar number were celebrating his triumphant return to form as he beat Maguire at the Barbican to win the first Triple Crown event of the season on Sunday.
“People have been looking forward to me winning titles,” he said. “My fans in China will have been watching overnight so thanks to everyone supporting me. It means many things. I’ll keep going.”
It meant even more to Ding to win his first trophy since the birth of his daughter in August 2018.
His wife and one-year-old girl are based in China, despite the fact that he spends lots of time in Sheffield during a UK-based snooker season.
Beginning life as a father coincided with his most severe dip in form, and he was emotional as he answered several questions from the BBC and the press about it afterwards.
“My family give me their full support,” he told the BBC’s Hazel Irvine immediately after victory. “I know my daughter doesn’t understand this yet, but I want to do my best so when she grows up she thinks she has the best daddy.
“In the interval I was watching videos of her and I can imagine she’s walking around.”
People have questioned whether life as a dad has compromised his hunger, and therefore his confidence.
Perhaps that is why, when speaking to Betway, both Alan McManus and compere Rob Walker fancied Maguire to win the final, despite the fact that he was a 6/4 outsider from the start.
“Ding has not been challenging for titles,” said McManus before the match. “This is like the start of a second career for him, but I fancy Stephen.”
Ding said afterwards that he was never close to walking away from the game, but he would not have blamed the experts for not fancying his chances.
“Before this tournament, I lost a few first rounds,” he said. “I can’t believe that I can play that good and do so well this week.
“It’s a big win. It brings me back to form and to the top 16.”
This version of Ding – his manipulation of the cueball and the way he precisely picks off the reds – is a force to be reckoned with.
He ended the final in vintage style, knocking in consecutive centuries – the sixth and seventh of the match – and revealed afterwards that a last-16 victory over one of few players capable of similar may have changed the course of his career.
“This week I was confident,” he said. “Beating Ronnie O’Sullivan on the way to the final meant I started to believe in myself that I can lift the trophy again.
“I’ve actually made it. Ding is back.”
If the old Ding is anything to go by, then the new version is going to be worth watching, too.
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