The wait goes on for yet another year.
Around a decade ago it wasn’t a question of whether or not Chinese players would win the World Snooker Championship, but more like how many?
Despite a constant wave of fresh young talent emerging onto the Main Tour, it hasn’t quite worked out that way at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
Yan Bingtao’s exit to Shaun Murphy in the last 16 of the 2021 World Championship on Monday means that China’s representation in this year’s edition is prematurely over, again.
More than twenty hopefuls began the month with aspirations of claiming the sport’s blue-riband prize, and five Chinese players featured in the first-round proper at the venue stages of this year’s World Championship.
But not for the first time their strong contingent have flattered to deceive at the home of snooker, and the unanswered question remains on when a contender from the vast Asian nation will actually go all the way.
Pioneer Ding Junhui is generally still seen as the main hope, as he was when he made his debut in the last 32 all the way back in 2007, and his sole appearance in the 2016 final continues to be the best effort by a player from his homeland.
Indeed, Ding is the only man to reach the single table set-up for the semi-finals, an awful return considering the wealth of pedigree that mainland China has to offer.
Many tipped Yan to go far in this year’s tournament after his tremendous triumph in the Masters earlier this season, but the 21 year-old has actually been in poor form since then and his tame defeat to the Magician didn’t necessarily come as a huge surprise.
Ding and Yan, along with Liang Wenbo who was thrashed by Neil Robertson in the last 32 last week, remain the only ones who have managed to join the illustrious group of ranking event winners.
There are certainly a number of factors to consider when attempting to understand why all of this has come to be the case.
With the majority of Chinese players turning professional at a young age – often in their mid-to-late teens – it’s probably natural that so many of them struggle to initially find their feet on a Main Tour that is still predominantly based in the UK.
Marry that with the fact that it has been almost impossible for the Chinese contingent to visit their families and friends back home in China since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s perhaps even more understandable that they have found life difficult on the circuit.
In fact, the recent situation and the lack of Chinese events on the calendar since 2019 are arguably major contributing factors in the likes of Yuan Sijun and Luo Honghao – two players heralded as stars for the future – dropping outside the world’s top 64 and being relegated from the tour this season.
Most of the Chinese players are based in England so there is a network to build a foundation upon, but even with that it’s going to be difficult for many of them to thrive in a foreign country in which another language is spoken.
At the same time, the fact that a high percentage of the Chinese players are situated in Sheffield does add to the mystery surrounding their poor World Championship efforts, as one would think that Sheffield by now would represent their home away from home.
As Ding can testify to, even if they are thousands of miles away there is still an enormous amount of pressure from the big snooker community back in China, and that will only intensify further following another miserable showing this year.
There is, though, always reason for optimism going forward.
In addition to Yan’s Masters success, the likes of Zhou Yuelong, Lu Ning, and Li Hang did reach ranking event semi-finals during the 2020/21 campaign, and six Chinese players will end this term inside the world’s top 32.
Rookie Pang Junxu and former world amateur champion Chang Bingyu, 21 and 18 respectively, produced good results at various points of the season and possess the promise to threaten more regularly in the future.
Ten, or even 15 years ago, there was the usual quip that ‘half of the top 16 in the world rankings would be Chinese in five years time’ and the same brigade of experts continue to rely on that spiel.
But even though that eventuality is developing at a far slower pace than what was once predicted, the reality is that such an outcome is almost inevitable at some point in the future.
The crop of Chinese competitors on the Main Tour is always growing and it’s the only consistent source of young talent on the circuit right now, with hardly any players of a similar age emerging from the traditional hotbed within the UK by comparison.
Those among the current top 16 in the world rankings who are currently dominating will age and their standard will decrease eventually, and it seems likely that the Chinese players will be the ones most likely to profit by taking their spots at the higher echelons of the game.
For now, though, they and the millions of snooker fans across China must play the waiting game, and suffer through the disappointment of another year of World Championship failure.
Success in Sheffield will surely come for the players from China – it must – but precisely when remains a mystery and something that appears to be in the laps of the snooker gods.
Featured photo credit: WST