Chinese New Year: Far East stars at the front of the cue

Ding Junhui in action
Ding Junhui in action
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Ding Junhui was just 16 years of age when he packed his bags, picked up his snooker cue and moved almost 5,000 miles to his new home of Sheffield.

Life in his home city of Yixing, China, was all this shy, retiring character had ever known.

Tian Pengfei  during his match with Mark Selby during day seven of the williamhill.com UK Championships at The Barbican Centre, York. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday December 2, 2013. See PA story SNOOKER York. Photo credit should read: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Tian Pengfei during his match with Mark Selby during day seven of the williamhill.com UK Championships at The Barbican Centre, York. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday December 2, 2013. See PA story SNOOKER York. Photo credit should read: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Yixing was where he first picked up a snooker cue, at the age of three. His father sold the family house when Ding was 12, and invested the money in a snooker hall so his boy could practice his game.

And practice he did. Ding took to the table for around eight hours a day, establishing himself on the Asian circuit.

In 2003, he made the decision to move to England and turn professional.

He initially landed in the market town of Wellingborough, under the tutelage of Keith Warren and Garry Baldrey.

Lyu Haotian the 15 year old from China during his 1st round defeat 6.5 to Scotland's Marcus Campbell, during day two of the williamhill.com UK Championships at The Barbican Centre, York. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday November 27, 2013. See PA story SNOOKER York. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Lyu Haotian the 15 year old from China during his 1st round defeat 6.5 to Scotland's Marcus Campbell, during day two of the williamhill.com UK Championships at The Barbican Centre, York. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday November 27, 2013. See PA story SNOOKER York. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Ding moved to Sheffield three years later, when Keith and Garry relocated to the World Snooker Academy at the English Institute of Sport.

The operation is now The Star Snooker Academy, housed inside Sheffield United’s Redtooth Academy building.

“I lived with two Chinese snooker players for a week before they left,” Ding remembers.

“After that, it was just me and a couple of Thai players.

“Nobody came with me from China, and I was scared.

“I was so far away from home, I couldn’t speak or understand English and I couldn’t even do anything simple, like watch TV.”

Eleven years on, Ding is comfortable in Sheffield and even calls the Steel City ‘home’.

“Back then, Chinese New Year was when I’d really miss home,” he added.

“For the first few years, it was just me in a little room.

“No phone calls from home... nothing.

“It felt like the world didn’t care about me, so all I could do was play snooker, so that’s all I did.

“I played and played and played... I didn’t talk a lot, I just played. Nothing else.

“All I kept thinking was that my father and my family had done so much for me, so I needed to earn money to keep everything going.”

Financial worries are now a thing of the past for Ding and his family, with on-table earnings of around £1.5m understood to be eclipsed by his commercial endorsements.

Ding, the current world number three, is Asia’s most successful snooker player in history, and has grabbed three titles - the Shanghai Masters, the Indian Open and the International Championship - already this season.

“He has a lot of natural ability, of course,” Warren - Ding’s former manager and director of the Star Academy, where Ding is a resident professional, says.

“But he hasn’t got to where he is now without a hell of a lot of hard work.

“He struggled at first with life over here, but he’s now what I’d call a Westernised Chinese... this is home for him now.

“He’s got a nice house in Ranmoor, a car and everything else he needs. He spends nine months of the year in the UK now, and there are five tournaments in China so he can go home and see his friends, family and commercial sponsors.

“It’s an ideal scenario for him, really.”

Those lonely nights spent alone in his room are a distant memory now for Ding, who lives with his Chinese girlfriend in Sheffield and enjoys watching Manchester United, playing badminton and eating at his favourite restaurant, Wong Ting on Matilda Street.

“I feel half Chinese and half English now,” says Ding. “When I am in England, I obviously miss China but then when I have a few months in China, I want to come back to England!

“I find English people very polite but in China, no-one seems to care and everything seems to be rushed.”

Despite his snooker status, Ding can still travel around his adopted home of Sheffield with relative normality.

But make no mistake, this boy is big business - especially in his homeland. Over 100million people watched on television as he lifted the Ladbrokes Mobile Masters back in 2011, with a final victory against Hong Kong’s Marco Fu.

That was the first all-Asian major snooker final in the history of the sport - but by no means will it be the last.

Two other Chinese youngsters, Lu Haotian and Tian Pengfei, are also residents of the Star Snooker Academy, with more expected to come over in the summer.

Lu became the youngest ever player to lift the World Under-21 Snooker title last year, when he defeated fellow Chinese player Zhu Yinghui at the age of just 14.

Former winners include Ronnie O’Sullivan - the five-time world champion - and Ding, and Warren says: “China are pretty much dominating the amateur and youth game at the minute, and you can see them dominating the snooker scene in the future, too.

“Whatever the Chinese people do, their culture means they will be successful. When they identify a sport they are good at, like snooker or table tennis, they go at it whole-heartedly.

“You just have to remember the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, with the amount of medals China won.

“Ding’s success has inspired millions in his home country.

“Now they teach snooker in schools, and they have a number of academies all around the country.”

“The key is to get these young players at the very start of their careers,” Warren continued.

“We have a couple more Chinese lads coming over in the summer - including Zhou Yuelong, who won this season’s World Amateur Championship and Zhao Xintong, who he beat in the final!

“We don’t only teach them how to play snooker, we have to teach them how to live in a Westernised culture which is completely different to what they’re used to.

“But they soon get to grips with it - you look at how Ding is flourishing now, compared to how he was when he came over, and it makes it all worthwhile.”