It had been coming and it’s finally happened – China’s Ding Junhui is no longer a member of the elite bracket of snooker’s top 16.
Following his early exit in the China Championship last week, Ding has plummeted outside snooker’s top 16 in the world rankings.
The former UK and Masters champion crashed out in the last 64 to countryman Zhao Xintong in Guangzhou, his premature demise reflecting a familiar sight over the last couple of years.
It’s sad to say of a player with so much talent and potential, but his new position of number 18 is fully deserved and reflective of the dreadful form he has endured since winning the 2017 World Open.
Ding has rarely threatened in ranking events since then and, in fact, has only been beyond the quarter-final stage once in the interim.
Victories over other members of snooker’s top 16 have been few and far between and there are serious question marks over how or when the 32 year-old will bounce back.
Of course, in 2016 after a similar bad run, Ding responded to his slide down the rankings by storming through the World Championship qualifiers and making a maiden appearance in a Crucible final in Sheffield.
Where that kind of standard is going to come from remains the obvious doubt, as Ding’s overall performances have been limp and lacking in his high-scoring prowess of old.
Indeed, while Ding might be in the top ten most prolific break builders of all time, a return of just over 50 tons since the start of the 2017/18 campaign hints at some of the problems he has faced.
When Ding burst onto the scene by capturing the China Open and UK Championship as a teenager in 2005, his game was built around an attacking mindset.
It’s understandable to develop an all-round approach as a career progresses, but it often appears these days as though Ding’s automatic setting is to get drawn into protracted safety battles.
One strong week in which he could possibly add to his tally of 13 ranking titles could be enough to spark a resurgence.
But Ding’s struggles against the top players will be hard to overcome and the prospect of the younger generation emerging – Yan Bingtao triumphed in the Riga Masters this summer and has risen to 15th in the world – to take his long-held China’s number one spot has apparently failed to spark any kind of revival.
Yan Bingtao moves into the top 16 in the provisional rankings and Ding Junhui drops out.
Saengkham, Vafaei and Maflin are making significant gains further down the list.
— snooker.org (@snookerorg) September 27, 2019
What impact too will his drop from snooker’s top 16 have on the popularity of the sport in his homeland?
Ding is the most adored cueist China has ever produced and, even though there are exciting young talents like Yan, Zhao, Zhou Yuelong, Luo Honghao, and Yuan Sijun entering the limelight, none of the supporting cast are able to attract the same level of razzmatazz.
Chinese sports journalist Alex Xie, who has been reporting on Ding since his breakthrough success in Beijing 14 years ago, told SnookerHQ: “For Ding, losing the status of top 16 is damaging.”
“It puts his invitation for the Masters and automatic seeding for the Crucible in question.
“If he keeps this low in performance, he may lose more qualifications for Champion of Champions, Player Championship, and Tour Championship – all of which are lucrative tournaments in prize money and some of them are very important for his ranking in the future.
“So it’s kind of a chain reaction. You know, every time he doesn’t perform, there will surely be a flood of criticisms online.
“Hardcore fans keep supporting and encouraging him, but surely he is given pressure to improve.
“Some radical netizens even chuckle at his struggle and say, ‘go home and retire since you’ve made enough money.’
“Unfortunately, he’s not good at coping with these things and it’s a vicious circle for him to regain confidence.
“As for Chinese snooker, I think it’s not so influential because Ding is only part of the reason that fans love snooker as a sport.
“Sadly, many of them are used to his under-performance in the past two years.
“But in the long run, if he can’t recover, media and fans would possibly lose interest in snooker gradually, especially when other Chinese players have achieved far less than Ding.
“In my early writing years, there were at least 50-60 journalists covering every tournament; now it’s down to less than 20.
“In my opinion, in the next five or ten years, it’s unlikely that China can cultivate another player as talented and accomplished as Ding.
“Based on my observation, I believe he still has potential to do more – winning the World Championship is still an attainable goal, but he needs to make some changes.”