The sun shines bright on the Chinese snooker scene
By David Hawkins
In 2003, at just 16 years old, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) awarded China’s Ding Junhui a spot on the professional tour following a fantastic year in 2002, in which he won the u21 Asia championship, and his achievement of becoming the number one ranked player in China. It didn’t take long for the dragon to make an impact on the tour when in April 2005 he won his first ranking title, beating six-time world champion Stephen Hendry 9-5 in the China Championship. He became the second youngest ever winner of ranking event after Ronnie Sullivan. His successes continued later in the year, becoming the first player from outside of the UK to win the UK championship. Another record was broken at the 2007 Masters has he became the first player outside the UK to record a televised maximum break, which was also the first at the masters for 23 years. The young Chinese sensation was taking the snooker world by storm, playing with a maturity of a player twice his age. Snooker MC Rob Walker often refers to Ding as having inspired a generation. If anything, this is an understatement.
In 1985, snooker saw perhaps it’s greatest ever final – the famous black ball final – between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor. It was watched by 18.5 million people in the UK, a third of the population at the time and by far is still the most watched post-midnight programme ever. Since then, you’ll be hard pressed to find a tv snooker tournament with those kind of viewing figures. Unless you’re in China that is. In 2016, an alleged 210 million people watched the world championship final between Ding and Mark Selby. Whilst this game ended in defeat for Ding, this felt like a landmark moment for snooker in China with so many people enthralled in backing their hero. Ding’s influence on China’s interest in snooker cannot be underestimated. In the 2004/5 season, the year of his first ranking title, Ding was one of two Chinese players on the tour. That number has now increased to 23, with China now the second most represented nation on the tour after England. The game’s popularity on the Chinese mainland is reflected with the building of purpose-built arena for cue sports in Yushan County with the aim of making it the cue sports capital of China. This is in addition to the 1500 snooker clubs built in Shanghai and 1200 in Beijing. You can see why there are now around 60 million snooker players in China, and with the rising number of talented young players on the tour and the success driven culture that exists there, that number only looks as if it’s going to increase.
One criticism that some have held is that for all the talent these young Chinese players have they haven’t managed much success on the tour so far. However, over the last few years that has begun to change. Another landmark moment occurred in 2015 as 15 year old Yan Bingtao combined with 17 year old Zhou Yuelong to win the snooker World Cup for China. Yan was one of the first to join the WPBSA snooker academy opened in Beijing in 2013 and it’s affect on him and his talent is clear to see. After what felt like a long three years, Yan finally one his first ranking event in 2019, beating Mark Joyce 5-2 in the Riga Masters. But this felt as though it was only the beginning of what was going to be a long and successful career. Yan fully cemented himself as one of the games big names in 2021 as he won his first triple crown event, the masters. He once again beat snooker legend John Higgins who recognised his talent by saying “He could be a world champion without a shadow of a doubt” At just 20 years old, he became the youngest winner of the masters since 1995 and, throughout the course of the match, showed the kind of grit you need to win major finals in snooker finding himself both 5-3 and 7-5 down. The really exciting thing about Yan is he doesn’t really seem to have one major weakness in his game, he is solid all round. Add to this his ability to continue playing at a good level unencumbered by what’s going on during a match and you can see why Higgins tipped him to go all the way.
For many years the flag bearer in snooker for China had been Ding Junhui and the charismatic Liang Wenbo. Liang, of course, being the only other Chinese player to have one a ranking event before Yan beating Judd Trump in the 2016 English Open. Snooker has come a long way in China since Ding first game on the tour. With each year that passes now it seems as if a new Chinese player makes there way on to the tour. Currently, 6 of the world’s top 32 come from China, showing that they no longer are relying on two players and threatening to dominate the sport in the next 10 years. To make things even better for the Asian game, the WPBSA recently announced it would be awarding tour cards to the top two female players for the 21/22 season. One of these players happens to be Ng On Yee from Hong Kong, adding to the strength in depth in Asian players on the tour. This could end up proving massive for the women’s game in East Asia and hopefully will inspire more women to take up the game as a result. Ng is just another product of the seemingly endless conveyor belt of talent coming out of East Asia, emanating from the success of Ding Junhui