Following the unexpected demise of Ronnie O’Sullivan on Saturday, Ding Junhui has been elevated as the favourite for this year’s World Snooker Championship in Sheffield.
O’Sullivan crashed out in a dramatic 13-9 defeat to Ali Carter, the first time that he has ever lost to the 38 year-old, to prolong the five-time world champion’s misery at the Crucible Theatre since 2013.
The “Rocket” had been expected to coast past his fellow Englishman, who had rarely caused him any problems in the past, but the “Captain” produced an assured, measured display to move into the last eight.
The surprise result, along with defending champion Mark Selby’s prior demise in the last 32 on the opening Saturday of the tournament, means that Ding has now been gifted with arguably his best opportunity ever to claim what would be a maiden world title.
The Chinese number one would have been due to face O’Sullivan in the last four this year before what could have been a repeat of the 2016 final showdown from two years ago with Selby.
With the top two seeds prematurely accounted for, significant attention has turned to Ding, who starts his second round encounter with Anthony McGill on Sunday morning.
The 31 year-old still requires four more triumphs to fulfill a decade-long ambition of becoming China’s, and Asia’s for that matter, first world champion so it is hardly a foregone conclusion.
However, Ding’s legion of fans back in China must be getting excited at the prospect of one of their greatest sporting heroes finally getting his hands on the World Championship trophy.
The big question is, now that he is the focus of even more media scrutiny, can the 13-time ranking event winner handle the intense pressure?
Ding has done well in the last couple of years to transform Sheffield, the former Masters champion’s home in the UK, from a venue of regular regret to a place of renewed ambition in the last couple of years.
His run to the final as a qualifier two years ago and subsequent semi-final appearance in 2017, when he again narrowly missed out against Selby, proved that he at least had the mettle to seriously contend at the Crucible.
Ding hasn’t always enjoyed being the primary centre of attention, highlighted by a poor sequence of results in his home country after he sensationally emerged onto the scene as a shy 18 year-old in 2005 to capture the China Open at the expense of seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry.
However, during his record-equalling 2013/14 campaign when he won five ranking titles, three victories came on home soil and he has added another couple since then – including this season’s World Open in Yushan.
Throughout his career, with the exception of that standout period of sustained success four seasons ago, Ding has hardly been the most consistent competitor in the game, often going through long periods of disappointing lulls.
Yet, one part of his game that is strong is his ability to seemingly turn it on like a flick of a switch and when he begins to produce his A-standard in an event, he is almost unplayable.
In Ding’s first round encounter with countryman Xiao Guodong, he appeared to be struggling early on in the fixture and trailed 2-0 before proceeding to turn in a magnificent display to hammer his capable opponent 10-3.
Ding looked at home and settled inside the Crucible, not something that could have been said a few years ago, and against McGill he’ll be hoping for an equally comfortable outcome.
Xiao said in the aftermath of his loss that he hoped Ding would go on and win the World Championship this year while Hone Kong’s Marco Fu tweeted yesterday “what a chance for Ding to win it now!”
For China and all of Asia, it would be a groundbreaking and landmark occasion if Ding were to unlock the door for a potential wave of future world champions to emerge from the continent.
It’s hard to imagine a better outcome for the sport too and, with Ding’s profile already massive in China, he would likely embark on previously unseen levels of stardom while snooker’s boom in the Far East nation would surely be guaranteed to continue for quite some time to come.
There are plenty left in the draw who will rightly have their say on whether or not Ding can etch his name on the silverware.
Two-time champion Mark Williams is enjoying an Indian summer in his career following two ranking event triumphs this season while Barry Hawkins, who beat Ding in the quarter-finals in 2013 en route to the final, potentially awaits at the same hurdle five years on.
On the opposite side of the draw lies the likes of four-time champion John Higgins, who reached the final last year only to run out of gas at the death, and the current Masters champion Mark Allen.
Then there’s Judd Trump, a player who somewhat like Ding has endured a level of underachievement throughout his career, especially in terms of a search for a maiden world title.
Could it possibly be a Ding versus Trump final?
A lot can happen between now and this time next week, when both finalists will be known and we’ll be one best of 35 frame encounter away from knowing our 2018 world champion.
For Ding, it might just be turning into his best chance yet.