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.
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To be fair to the ‘expert predictions’, nobody expected top players from the last two decades to still be playing so well into their mid-40’s. At some point, the ground will have to shift.
It’s not just a problem for Chinese players, it’s a problem for young players generally. Too many are building a racial narrative around this. The youngest non-Chinese player at the Crucible was Sam Craigie, who at 27 barely qualifies as a ‘young player’. These days it’s so difficult for newcomers to win matches and climb the rankings – the established players ranked 20-80 are just very tough to beat. Often, after losing so many matches, a young player’s confidence collapses. It wasn’t just Yuan Sijun and Luo Honghao who got relegated, but also Jackson Page and James Cahill.
Of course, there are special challenges for the Chinese players. In football terms, they are ‘playing away’ every game. You are right to point out that they come over at a ridiculously young age. The fact is, the level of competition, number of tournaments and huge distances involved in China mean that a talented teenager is probably forced to come to the UK to continue his development. I would argue that many come here with an inadequate technique, which tends to disintegrate under the extra pressure of the professional game. 2020 obviously brought additional problems. In fact, this time last year I thought as many as 10 Chinese players could be relegated, or at least it might take 3 seasons to recover their ranking level. But almost all did manage to return to the UK, and not miss out on too many ‘ranking points’. In early 2021 most were looking ragged. The World Championship qualifiers saw a slight resurgence, but ultimately they faded.
There are many who don’t like the Chinese players, preferring to ‘keep the tour British’. One TV presenter even described most Chinese players as ‘robotic’. But the fact is we need them, as some of the brightest young talents in the sport. The financial boost from Chinese sponsorship is crucial, and WST’s attempts to make the game more global depends on it.
We also know how difficult it is to carry the expectations of a nation: for example, it took 77 years for a British man to win Wimbledon again. Ding-bashing has become an annual tradition. He has probably spent the last 9 months questioning whether he did the right thing to leave his wife and daughter, and nodoubt was thinking about that at times during the (very close) match against Bingham, a nightmare first-round opponent who played very well.
Yes, true. But at what point does one stop using the ‘great era of players’ excuse and start telling some truths that may sting, as in the young players nowadays just aren’t cutting it enough. Anyway, that’s related to this but it’s a separate discussion really. I still think China will come to dominate – or at least feature a lot more prominently – at some point. The fact that their players are so young, and their numbers on the MT are getting so high, indicates that their turn will come eventually so long as they don’t pick up irreversible scars along the way.
I agree, but WST will ultimately need go a lot further to help the game become more global. Even before covid, all tournaments began in the UK, if only a qualifying round in Barnsley or Preston. I think snooker will only be truly global when it’s possible to be a top player without needing to spend 9 months of the year based in the UK. However, I do not agree with the opinion that young players are all lazy – that is unfair. Unquestionably it’s harder to break through now.
As for the Chinese challenge, if at some point there are several top-10 players from China, that opens up possibilities such as a snooker equivalent of golf’s Ryder Cup, which would be a wonderful new dimension to take the game forward.
Anyway, I appreciate your optimism. You’d think the future of our great game would be a priority debate, but it hardly ever gets considered…
The reality is the younger players coming through, regardless of nationality, are generally giving it their best, but they don’t possess the quality to compete with today’s top players. I even question how good Yan is despite winning the Masters. He’s blessed with a superb temperament and a fine safety game but whenever a truly elite player plays close to their top form he rarely beats them.
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