Snooker: China's big break

Ding Junhui defends his China Open title tonight in a snooker-loopy land that may soon host the world championship

Ronnie O'Sullivan brings sex appeal, and Stephen Hendry supplies class. But the zing is all from Ding. That is the inescapable conclusion here, where the headline act at the China Open, which started yesterday, is neither the edgy Essex bad boy nor Scotland's seven-times world champion but one of the locals' own - Ding Junhui.

As one fan, Wang Wen, typically enthused outside the venue: "Girls love Ronnie because he is handsome and fast, and Hendry because he is the master. But Ding is the hero. He's the future, and he's ours."

The man himself, who hails from Jiangsu province but is now based at the Wellingborough snooker academy in Northamptonshire, is famously shy and unwilling to talk himself up. "I feel heavy pressure [this week]," he said yesterday, speaking in his preferred Chinese. "Everybody is formidable here. I haven't set any goal for myself. I just hope to play good snooker."

Prodigious does not do justice to what this modest teenager could achieve, personally and for snooker. He first went to a snooker hall with his father, Ding Wenjun, at the age of eight. His natural talent was rapidly obvious. His dad relocated his family near Shanghai where he felt his son's development would be better served and where he was competing in senior tournaments before his height outstripped the length of his cue. He is already one of China's most popular sportsmen, and a contender for a top-three place in China's equivalent of the Sports Personality of the Year Award later this week. Ding shares space on a shortlist of 20 with the basketball megastar, Yao Ming - the most famous person in China, who earns $15m (£8.5m) a year with the NBA's Houston Rockets - and Liu Xiang, who won the 110 metres hurdles Olympic gold medal in Athens. If Ding fails to usurp them immediately, he can take solace from having an array of multinational brands interested in signing him up.

Snooker, still coming to terms with the loss of tobacco advertising and a related downturn in ranking events, prize-money and pro circuit players, is also benefiting. It already ranks as the third most popular sport in China, behind only basketball and boxing, when measured by aggregate annual television viewing figures. Part of that is down to Ding. He won the China Open a year ago, drawing a staggering audience of 110 million on CCTV5, the national sports channel. More big numbers are expected when he starts his title defence this evening, local time.

A large part is also down to an assiduous plan by World Snooker, the world governing body's commercial arm, to make snooker truly global. China is home to 1.3 billion people, and between 50 million and 60 million play cue sports.

Two years ago, World Snooker opened a full-time office in Beijing. Simon Leach, a sports marketing specialist, has been the WS chief representative in China since then. "There's no way you're going to take snooker global without a sustained presence in your target countries," he says.

Leach adds that Ding is important, but not make-or-break for snooker in China. "We're certainly not building everything around Ding," he says. "But it would be stupid not to recognise his impact. He's an exceptional talent."

As well as Ding, China boasts two other top-100 players in Liang Wenbo and Jin Long, with others coming through. Eight Chinese are wild cards here this week, with two unknowns, Yang Qing Tian, 24, and Yu De Lu, 19, yesterday respectively shocking England's Dave Harold and Andrew Norman, both top 60 players, on the first day. Yang's reward is a meeting with Ding.

O'Sullivan, Hendry and Steve Davis have all tipped Ding as a future world champion. That will not happen this year because Ding is still outside the automatic (top 16 ranked) entry places for The Crucible and fell in the last qualifier last week.

But he has blazed enough of a trail to prove he has rare ability. In 2002, aged 15, he was the Under-21 world champion. Last April, two days after his 18th birthday, he became the second-youngest player, after O'Sullivan, ever to win a ranking tournament when he beat Hendry here. In December he proved he was no one-hit wonder, beating Davis to lift the UK Championship in York to become the first non-British or Irish player to win the event. He seemed almost overwhelmed at the warmth of the support.

"It's strange that I am so popular in Britain and that they say I could be the next Ronnie O'Sullivan," he says. "I guess that because British people have dominated snooker for so long, they are just amazed to see someone like me come on to the scene." And what might he achieve in the future? "I don't want to consider that right now."

Amid the buzz about Ding, the China Open has relocated to a flashier venue, the 1,500-seat Beijing Students' University Gymnasium. More than 100 personnel from CCTV5 are here, plus a further 162 other Chinese journalists. The Gymnasium, a centre for excellence for several national sports teams, also guarantees prestige, if not peace. Chinese fans are still keen on talking, eating, expectorating (loudly), using their phones and taking photographs during play. The temperature could also be a problem. The city government switched off all the central heating in Beijing last week. That is routine. The heating goes off every March and stays off until next winter starts, regardless of the weather. (Or the state of the baize, which needs consistency).

Dealing with such local quirks are part and parcel of Leach's job. Another is dealing with sponsors, such as Xing Pai Ji Tuan, one of China's leading sports, property and leisure brands. They insisted on the snappy tournament title of "The 2006 Star Dragon Woods Villa Cup China Open", and yesterday's curtain-raising presentation - featuring top officials, ceremonially trying to pot balls with Ding - was requested at late notice.

Denying such requests is a no-no, as is expecting to make a quick impression, or buck. "You can't just go in and out for events. The Chinese will not take you seriously as a business if you haven't got proven staying power," Leach says. "We've had to develop relationships with Chinese snooker, the government, CCTV, the media, advertising agencies who actually know the market, not Western agencies who think they do. It's a long and tiring process. This isn't going to happen in two or three years."

The game boomed in China in the late Eighties and Nineties. "This is really the second phase of popularity, except people are realising there's a lot of world-class playing potential in China," Leach says. "Every major city has between 250 and 300 clubs, with 20 to 30 tables each. In Britain you're talking a handful in each city. In China it's seen as a cool sport. Ding is part of that."

World Snooker's immediate aim is to establish the China Open, and at least break even. The event costs £400,000 to stage, including the £200,000 prize pot. A second ranking event in China, probably in Shanghai, is the aim within two or three years, "or maybe sooner."

Leach says that staging the World Championship itself in China is a possibility after 2010, when The Crucible's current deal expires. Ding and his compatriots are on course to be challengers, sooner rather than later.

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