Ding Junhui on pain of losing mum to cancer: ‘I'll give everything to become world champion for her'
China's number one player Ding Junhui tells Desmond Kane he would love to honour the memory of his mother by becoming his country's first world snooker champion.
Professional sport has plenty of inspired players, but not too many truly inspirational figures. Ding Junhui is both.
The bravery the world number four exhibits on a snooker table with his fearless attacking strategy and voracious appetite for potting balls is nothing compared to the courage he has been forced to display off it.
When Ronnie O’Sullivan described Ding as “a special lad, a beautiful guy” after losing 13-10 to snooker’s biggest global icon in a sweltering World Championship quarter-final on Wednesday, he was not fraternising with hyperbole.
It was a rousing performance from Ding as breaks of 128, 120, 117, 87, 71, 71, 69, 65, 64, 63, 63, 59 and 58 gave him an epic win over his childhood idol in Sheffield. It was only his third win in 16 career meetings against O'Sullivan.
It was a first victory over any distance against the game's most colossal natural talent since a 9-6 success in the final of the Northern Ireland trophy 11 years ago.
China's Ding Junhui (R) holds the trophy with his mother Chen Xijuan after defeating Scotland's John Higgins in the 2009 UK final.Eurosport
Yet what Ding describes as his “greatest performance” at the Crucible Theatre was made even more remarkable as he attempts to anesthetise the pain of losing his mum Chen Xijuan in January. She had been supporting her son's ambition to achieve snooker supremacy, but finally succumbed to cancer after bravely battling the disease since July 2015. She was only 55.
They say in life you never truly grow up until you lose your parents.
Ding, who turned 30 on April 1, is very much a man these days after such a harrowing experience.
“I feel better now, but such sad things in life are hard to work out,” he told Eurosport.
“I try to do my best for her. She was wanting me to lift up that trophy.
“I will do my best. I was doing badly before, but feeling better now.
"I told her that I would do my best for her. Even to get the chance to win it once is what she would have wanted."
“She knows because I told her that I wanted to do it for her. I will do my best, that’s it.”
Ding is mastering the language of English as well as he controls the cueball. There is no sense of ego about him. His honesty and humbleness are refreshing for a figure who has been pivotal in carrying his sport to the world’s most populous nation, a land of 1.357 billion going more snooker loopy than Chas & Dave.
Ding Junhui celebrates his win over Ronnie O'Sullivan.Eurosport
He has the full support of his family as he attempts to go one better than last year when he lost in the final 18-14 to Mark Selby here.
His father Ding Wenjun prefers to watch his matches back in China rather than join his son at his adopted home in Sheffield where Ding lives with wife Apple.
“My father has been here a few times, but he finds it a little bit boring. He stays home to watch it online,” said Ding.
“He doesn’t speak English so he is missing a few friends when he is over here. When I go for practise, he is bored here.”
While O’Sullivan is snooker's biggest entertainer, it is fair to say Ding is the sport’s true global icon with over 100m in China watching his win over the five-times world champion.
To understand his level of popularity, he has 4.5million followers on Weibo, his country's largest social media network.
Ding and O'Sullivan shared a warm embrace after the match with O’Sullivan whispering extended congratulations to the Yixing potting king as they shook hands.
It came a decade after Ding was drubbed 10-2 at the Crucible by a man he calls his "hero".
“I believe this match will have had record audiences watching back in China because Ronnie is involved. I hope they are all happy,” said Ding.
“There will be well over 100m watching. You can’t really think about how many people are watching. You just focus on the game and go for it.
“Ronnie said afterwards he saw a difference, and that I was stronger than when I played him before. I want to keep going this way.”
Ding is embraced by Ronnie O'Sullivan at the Crucible.Eurosport
Ding first watched O’Sullivan in an invitation match in Guangzhou when he only was only nine.
He was so inspired, he won his first major final with a 9-5 win over seven-times world champion Stephen Hendry when he turned 18 in 2005.
It was the same year he became UK champion for the first time with a 10-6 win over another goliath of the sport in Steve Davis.
“I watched Ronnie for the first time a long time ago in 1996. It was a lovely game,” said Ding.
“Before the match, I hoped that I could produce my best performance against him. I feel that I did that well.
"I gave it my all, and I’m proud of myself. Every time I had a chance, I took my time to make sure I was scoring. "
“I played the right way so I didn’t feel too much pressure to make shots. I just played at my own speed and my own game.
"I know everyone wants Ronnie to win here. This is hard because he is always favourite.
“It is difficult to play your own game against Ronnie with the crowd behind him, but this time I did it well.
“When I won five titles in 2013 and 2014, I played him in the final of the Welsh Open. I couldn’t pot any balls, and he won quite easily (9-3). This is not good.
" I was thinking too much about playing my hero, so I had to stop suffering."
Having won the Masters and the UK Championship twice in these parts amid 12 tournament wins he is firmly focused on snaring the game's most coveted pot.
Ding – who has pieced together six 147 maximums in his career – is well aware what becoming China’s first world champion would mean to the sport in his homeland.
Ding beat Zhou Yuelong, 19, 10-5 in a Chinese derby as Shaun Murphy scrambled past 17-year-old debutant Yan Bingtao 10-8 in the first round.
It is a sign of the times in snooker.
“Snooker is already big in China, but if I can win the title it becomes bigger and more famous,” said Ding. “It brings more youngsters to the sport.
“You seen Zhou and Yan Bingtao here. They are very young. When I was that age, I didn’t do as well as them.
“I didn’t qualify for this tournament at their age.”
Ding is coached by the 1979 world champion Terry Griffiths.
The loneliness of the long distance runner is comparable to the loneliness of the long distance snooker player with Ding working for hours and hours each day in the Steel City with a steely determination to perfect his craft.
He feels he is in a better frame of mind to face Selby in the semi-finals over the best of 33 frames than a year ago when he had to reach the final over a tortuous 83 frames via three qualifying rounds and four matches at the Crucible.
“I feel like I am playing better now than I was a year ago when I faced Mark,” said Ding.
“It is a bonus living in Sheffield as I don’t have to do any travelling.
“I like to stay home and rest between matches. Get some decent Chinese food, and keep your head clean. If you relax, and relax the brain, you have good energy for the next day.
“Terry always tell me to forgive myself when I miss a shot. When I missed a red against Ronnie, it didn’t make much difference to how I was feeling.
"Beating my hero is a special day for me. It gives me great memories, and I will remember this forever."
Becoming world snooker champion would not heal the hurt, but it would perhaps help to bring a sense of purpose after such a devastating blow.
There is an impressive resolve about the young man who has been forced to build a life for himself in a UK-based snooker tour that is not solely restricted to his brilliance on the baize.
Building character in the face of such adversity is a much more exacting test than conquering the snooker world. Ding Junhui is both inspired and inspirational.
Desmond Kane at the Crucible Theatre