Time for Ding Junhui to gatecrash the party at Crucible in Sheffield
Living in Sheffield for Ding Junhui is like having a works party in your front living room for 17 days every year and you're not invited.
Ever since Ding moved to the Steel City as a fresh-faced teenager – opting for the home of snooker as his English base – the Chinese cueman has been tipped as a future world champion.
Over a decade later, the 29-year-old has won everything the sport has to offer apart from snooker’s holy grail – the Betfred World Championship.
He is a former Masters and UK champion – he won the latter aged just 18 – and has been world No 1.
But with the expectations of a nation – snooker is a boom sport in China, with millions of fans – weighing on Ding’s slender shoulders, each year that passes without success at the Crucible seems to intensify that. Until this year.
A poor season saw Ding – who is based at the city’s Star Academy – drift out of the elite top 16 and he was forced to win three qualifying matches at the nearby Ponds Forge sports centre just to earn a Crucible spot.
It means he has flown under the radar, but that all changes on Thursday when he steps out in the semi-finals against one of this year’s surprise packages, 45-year-old Alan McManus, another Crucible qualifier.
The former Masters champion beat four-time world champion John Higgins 13-11 on Wednesday night, 25 years after making his Crucible debut. The Scotsman has twice reached the semi-finals, but the last time was in 1993.
It’s only the second time Ding has reached the last four – he lost to Judd Trump in 2011 – and has struggled to deliver in his adopted hometown.
Despite home comforts – he owns a house in Sheffield – unlike the majority of players who stay in hotels or rent apartments, sleeping in his own bed has done nothing to inspire his snooker.
Yet he will never have a better chance of becoming the first Asian player to be crowned snooker’s world champion, although, Hong Kong’s Marco Fu is hoping he can pip him to that accolade. The 38-year-old beat Barry Hawkins 13-11 on Wednesday to clinch a semi-final showdown with world No 1 Mark Selby, who saw off Kyren Wilson 13-8.
Fu looked set for a one-sided win when he took a 9-1 lead, only for Hawkins to scrap his way back nto the contest. At 12-10, Fu looked in danger of losing another frame, but took on a difficult long red, and was rewarded with a match-winning clearance.
It is the first time in snooker history that two Asian players have reached the Crucible semi-final stage in the same year.
One consolation for Wilson was a 143 clearance – the front-runner for a £10,000 highest break prize – and his quarter-final run has secured the 24-year-old a top 16 spot for next season.
“I hope not (it won’t be beaten) because my cue might be in pieces if it is,” said Wilson.
“It was a nice break but at 12-6 down I’m sort of out of the match so it’s a nice little consolation prize and hopefully it will stand.”
Selby’s tournament has been a slow burner, but in the marathon that the Crucible is, he seems to be pacing himself nicely.
“There’s still a long way to go, we’re only half-way through the tournament and the matches get longer,” said Selby.
“It’s going to be tough, but I’ve just got to try and stay fresh and keep playing like I can. If I go out there and I’m switched on, I don’t really mind who I play.
“The turning point in this match was the second session, when it went from 6-2 to 10-6. I’m not sure how I came out of that 4-4 because Kyren was by far the better player, it was a miracle really.
“If he’d won that session 7-1 it wouldn’t have been a surprise, so to battle the way I did probably won me the match.
“He’s only 24, he’s got a great game, he’s had a great season and I have no doubt he will be a future world champion.”
Ding breezed through three qualifiying rounds – dropping just seven frames along the way – and beat top-16 player Martin Gould 10-8 at the first Crucible hurdle.
He gained revenge for his 2011 defeat, beating Judd Trump 13-10 in the second round, before crushing two-time winner Mark Williams 13-3 in the quarter-finals.
Such was the one-sided nature of that win, Ding earned an unscheduled day off on Wednesday.
“I am going to enjoy my day off, and get some rest,” said Ding, who has won 11 ranking events. Only five players in snooker history have won more.
“I got some easy chances in the match because Mark had a lot of bad kicks,” said Ding, whose family sold their home so their teenage son could follow his dreams of becoming a snooker star.
“I controlled the game, took my chances and made some good breaks. I was confident.
“Every time I saw a chance I thought I could go for it and pot it.”
If the 29-year-old does go on and lift the Crucible trophy on Monday, he will become only the third qualifer to do so.
And it would mean Ding has finally arrived at his own party.