By Fin Ruane
In Shanghai this week, PTCs aside, the third full ranking event of the new season is taking place. The Bank of Communication Shanghai Masters is now a regular fixture on the calendar, more importantly however is that it’s the second of five ranking events in China this season. With three Asian PTCs to add to that tally China has strengthened its already vice-like grip as Asia’s powerhouse snooker nation.
Where once Thailand was viewed and indeed used as a multiple ranking event venue, China has without doubt replaced it and, with the huge International Championship set to be staged in Chengdu in October, surely it won’t be long before the rumblings of the World Championship moving east will be heard again.
Although massive, the growth of snooker in China hasn’t happened overnight. Indeed, if you were to go back to the mid 1980s and look at the photos of Steve Davis, Jimmy White and the rest of Barry Hearn’s Matchroom stable on the first promotion tour to China you will see how idolised and popular they already were.
Even with the success of that tour and several other promotional trips that the top players made to the Far East it wasn’t until 1997 that China hosted its first professional snooker tournament. The China International was originally an invitation tournament but such was the popularity of that event it duly went on to become the China Open and with that it became a world ranking event.
My first trip to China was in 1999 for the China International’s first outing as a ranking tournament. It wasn’t just my first trip to China but many of the players on board that flight were visiting and playing in the country for the first time as well. Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry, as previous visitors, were the two people I sought out mostly during my first few days for any advice they could offer me on where to go. Shanghai at that time was a huge construction site and the first signs of the thriving metropolis it is now were only slightly visible. The tournament was held in the very hotel we stayed in and spectator figures were pretty dismal – only after speaking (rather slowly) to a cab driver did I find out that high ticket prices were the main reason spectators stayed away. Add the fact that the tournament was screened live on television further helped to keep the snooker fans in the comfort of their own homes. The tournament, which was eventually won by John Higgins, was considered a success but what China needed most was its own star names to compete amongst the world’s best.
At this time Marco Fu was the only recognisable snooker player China had and although he reached the final of the Grand Prix the previous season and won the WPBSA Newcomer of the Year award, along with the Young Player of the Year award, he failed to capitalise and spent several seasons languishing between the top 16 and top 32 in the world rankings. He did win his first professional tournament in 2003 by claiming the Premier League but it wasn’t until 2007 that Fu enjoyed his finest hour as a professional when he defeated Ronnie O’Sullivan 9-6 in the final of the Grand Prix. Snooker in China still needed a boost and this duly came during the late ’90s and the early years of the new decade when the Asian Games were held every four years. Snooker was included and amongst the winners were Thailand’s James Wattana and China’s Fu. However, a young player was slowly making his mark and after winning an individual gold in 2002 Ding Junhui, at just 15, set about embarking on a professional career.
A Masters invite in 2004 set him on his way and a year later, as he celebrated his 18th birthday, a shy Ding enjoyed the first ranking win of his fledgling career by beating Stephen Hendry 9-5 in the final of his home tournament, the China Open.
Ding’s instant success opened the floodgates for snooker in China and an already popular sport literally became the country’s top billing overnight. Snooker clubs opened almost everywhere and have continued to do so. In fact, a recent survey found that there were more snooker tables in Shanghai than there is in the whole of Europe.
Fu and Ding were soon joined by a host of new stars from their homeland. Names such as Wenbo , Song, Chuang and more recently Yupeng have now established China and its snooker players as a force to be reckoned with. Last season’s World Championships saw the standing of Chinese snooker further enhanced when five Chinese players made it to Sheffield. Chinese media personnel now outnumber their British based peers at ranking events when their players are involved due to the demand from the fans back home. In 2011, when Ding played Fu in the Masters final, television viewing figures were over one hundred million such was the excitement the final pairing had created in their homeland.
Snooker players, not just Chinese but players from all countries, are revered in China now. In 1999 we landed in Shanghai airport and bussed through the city in an ancient coach to the hotel. Nowadays, the press along with hundreds of fans are awaiting at the airports before a fleet of limousines ferry the players to their hotels. Opening ceremonies include a red carpet walk for the players where, again, hundreds of press and fans bay for their photos and autographs. Many of the players have Chinese sponsors and the Chinese manufactured Star tables now being used cement the huge role that China now plays in world snooker.
There is no doubt snooker in China is here to stay and with the sport a part of the national school curriculum, young stars such as 14 year-old Lu Haotian continue to come through on the conveyor belt of talent. Even the eye-catching referee Zhu Ying has established herself as a top referee and finds herself as popular as Michaela Tabb.
I believe the five full ranking events and three Asian PTC tournaments are only the beginning. We should expect to see possibly two more ranking events and possibly another invitation event before the talk of a Chinese staged World Championship gathers momentum again.
The journey there may be long but with increasing prize money in the events held and the opportunity to secure a lucrative sponsorship deal, players are now realising the huge potential earning power they have in China.
As for now, though, the People’s Republic finds itself as the leading light for the future of professional snooker.