Right on cue
Updated: 2011-01-28 13:24
By Zhang Haizhou and Zhang Chunyan (China Daily European Weekly)
Ding Junhui won his first Masters title in London on Jan 16 with a
New Snooker Masters champion Ding Junhui living a dream but keeps his lifestyle simple
China is football crazy, but more people watched Ding Junhui take on Marco Fu in the final of snooker's Masters in London on Jan 16 even as the national soccer team was playing a crucial match in Qatar.
For good reason: Ding won his first Masters - a great redemption after a heart-breaking loss four years earlier at Wembley to his idol Ronnie O'Sullivan - and China was knocked out of the Asian Cup.
Media estimates have it that more than 100 million people in China watched live TV coverage late in the evening as Ding become Masters Champion by winning the first all-Chinese tournament final against Fu, from Hong Kong - and his normally impassive face breaking into a rare smile as he held the heavy trophy.
But as Ding sat down for a one-hour exclusive interview at the Star Snooker Academy in Sheffield, northern England, on Jan 25, the 23-year-old didn't look like a champion at all. Wearing a striped hooded jumper, loose-fitting jeans and trainers, he looked more like a university student.
"I dress up only for matches. I hate wearing formal shoes. Very uncomfortable" says Ding, adding he has no favorite brand, doesn't like shopping and wears only simple and comfortable clothing.
It's not just attire; the lifestyle of the prodigy nicknamed Star of the East is simple. And he says he tries to strike a balance between snooker and life.
Ding - whose family is back in China - does not have a fixed training regimen and practices until "he thinks it is enough".
After training, which typically finishes at around 5 pm, he normally goes to a Chinese restaurant to enjoy his favorite Cantonese food. And as with many young men of his age, he sometimes skips breakfast if he wakes up too late.
He normally spends the evenings surfing the Internet, mainly through leading Chinese portal sohu.com. He blogs as "Ding Junhui" and tweets on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of twitter.
He also plays the online tactical first-person shooter game Counter-Strike, at which he is "just so so".
"Once, when I wrongly logged onto a Spanish server (to play CS), other players just kicked me out because no one could understand what I was talking about when I input my messages in Chinese pinyin," he says with a laugh. No one, it seems, cares about who "Ding Junhui" is in the online gaming world.
He has recently upgraded from iPhone 3 to iPhone 4 after seeing most other snooker players use it but "I'm always behind"!
Besides snooker, Ding's favorite sport is basketball; he loves reading basketball magazines and NBA club Miami Heat star LeBron James is his favorite.
He's also a fan of Hollywood films and likes The Transformers the most.
How does he cope with his fame, especially in a city which describes itself as the snooker capital of the world?
It's better in Sheffield than in China and can handle it, he replies.
"I don't keep away from the high street because I am a celebrity. Some people stare at me on the street when they recognize me. Some even rush from behind and tug at my shoulder to check if I am Ding Junhui," he says. "When that happens, I just smile and sometimes pose for a picture with them."
However simple and ordinary his lifestyle appears to be, Ding is considered a threat to Britons' long dominance of the game. He is tipped a favorite to win this year's World Championship after his Masters triumph.
Snooker legend Steve Davis says the match between Ding and Fu "shows how much the game has changed". Three-time world champion O'Sullivan says he could see "in 10 years there will probably be 10 top Chinese players". China has now seven players in the top 100 with Ding, who ranks fourth, the highest.
But a modest Ding says it's "impossible" for his country to dominate the cue sport generally regarded as having been invented in India by the British army. "China holds only two ranking tournaments (the China Open and the Shanghai Masters)," he says. The UK holds 16 of a total of 19.
Ding says he agrees with 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy, who does not necessarily put the Chinese cueman among the favorites for this year's World Championship, the most prestigious annual snooker tournament.
"He's quite right. (John) Higgins won the World Championship, but was still kicked out of the Masters in the first round," Ding says, implying there's little connection between the two events.
Ding could be right because he is quite young compared to the eight Britons in top 10, and his professional career is much shorter. Both Higgins and O'Sullivan began their professional career in 1992.
Ding started on the sport only three years later when he was 8. And he turned professional at 13.
It was a tough decision for the family for few Chinese had succeeded in the sport, and most Chinese believe a university degree is the only way to a bright future.
But Ding's father, who unsuccessfully ran a cue sport club in his hometown, Yixing in East China's Jiangsu province, persuaded his wife to sell their house so that Ding could continue playing snooker as a career and repay some debt, too.
After becoming China's youngest snooker national champion, Ding flew to Britain in 2003 and began his career in Wellingborough, a town with less than 100,000 people in the British Midlands.
He did not speak English at that time, and came to the country only 800 pounds (929 euros) in his pocket. He rented a room for 50 pounds per week and walked to a local snooker academy to train with other foreign players, surviving on McDonald's and Chinese takeaways.
"A small box of rice with only a few pieces of meat cost me 4 pounds at that time! It was so expensive," he recalls, "But my predicament made me more determined."
Ding began to play in small tournaments, and has since not looked back. He has seven titles since 2005, with career earnings estimated to have crossed 1 million pounds.
Talking about the future, he says he plans to play full time till at least 30.
"I don't have a specific plan yet. But I may then play fewer matches."
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