Snooker: Ding Junhui still believes he can be a Crucible champion in Sheffield despite World Championship quarter-final exit
Another Crucible opportunity may have slipped through Ding Junhui's grasp but the deep-seated belief that he will one day be world champion still resides in the Chinese snooker superstar.
This year’s Betfred World Championship failure will particularly hurt Ding – heavily-fancied Mark Selby and Ronnie O’Sullivan crashing out early, combined with the Sheffield-based cueman’s second-round demolition of Anthony McGill, had left him as the bookies’ favourite.
But the world No.3 surrendered meekly in the quarter-finals, going down 13-5 to Barry Hawkins – something of a Crucible specialist who Ding could learn a thing or two from as he looks end his World Championship hoodoo.
No-one – even three-time world champion Selby – has won more than Hawkins’ 18 matches at the Sheffield venue since 2013 and he is now gearing up for a fifth semi-final in six years.
The 39-year-old did the damage in the second session on Tuesday evening, winning six of the eight frames on offer to build up an unassailable 11-5 advantage.
And he finished it off with minimal fuss on Wednesday morning – claiming the first two frames in just 41 minutes, getting over the line with a fluent 117 break.
“I didn’t play well – starting with the first session, I missed too many chances to get into the black-ball area,” said Ding.
“My position wasn’t good and I didn’t put pressure on him, so he punished me heavily. He’s played quite well throughout the match.
“Some days you play well, some days not – maybe it just wasn’t my day. I tried to play well to score heavily but what can I say? It didn’t work.
“Barry played well every frame and I didn’t play good safety to put him under pressure. I had chances but didn’t take them and he punished me.
“He’s got enough experience here and a good record in this tournament over the last couple of seasons. He’s got enough confidence to win it.”
Ding must now come to terms with the fact he will be 32 years old by next year’s Worlds – well past the age by which most expected him to be a multiple-time world champion.
And the old questions surrounding his inability to play at the Crucible that had seemingly been put to bed with a semi-final and a final appearance in the past two years will surely now resurface.
He still has plenty of time to end his Crucible curse – this season’s three most successful players, O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams are all a decade older than him – and to his credit, Ding is keeping the faith, even if those around him are starting to lose theirs.
“I still believe I can win this tournament,” insisted Ding. “Belief is belief but matches are the truth. I always get my hopes up that I can win it.
“I never give up – I’m a sportsman, so I couldn’t give up against Barry. Maybe I pushed too much and put too much on myself.
“I didn’t think I was favourite with John Higgins and Judd Trump and Barry – they’re all good, no-one is a favourite because anybody could win it.
“The rankings don’t mean anything. The rankings change quickly – in one tournament you could go to the top, so it wasn’t important that I was the highest-ranked player left.
“It doesn’t make any difference who is the favourite - it all depends who is playing better on the day.”
Watch the snooker World Championship LIVE on Eurosport and Eurosport Player with Colin Murray and analysis from Ronnie O’Sullivan, Jimmy White and Neal Foulds.