The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
The 2013/14 snooker season boasted a dozen ranking events, a new record for the number staged under that status at the time.
One player who took full advantage of the increased opportunities was Ding Junhui, who was finally at the peak of his powers for a sustained period, brief though it was.
Despite having just turned 26 by the time his 2013/14 snooker season commenced, Ding’s achievements were already the source of much discussion among analysts and fans alike.
By now, Ding was already a six-time ranking event champion – a tally which included a brace of UK Championship crowns – and a Masters winner.
But his failure to build on his early promise as a devastating teenager, particularly at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield where he suffered from a dismal record, had some already querying his fragile temperament.
Ding burst onto the scene by capturing the 2005 China Open on his 18th birthday, and in doing so ignited an enormous wave of popularity for snooker in the Asian nation.
The former world under-21 amateur champion was, and continues to be, so adored by his Chinese fans that the pressure on his shoulders has at times been too heavy to bear, and this frequently led to subpar performances on home soil.
When he triumphed then in the 2013 Shanghai Masters courtesy of a 10-6 beating of compatriot Xiao Guodong in the final, a lot of that load was suddenly lifted.
Ding’s confidence was carried forward into the very next ranking event, the inaugural staging of the Indian Open where he beat home hero Aditya Mehta in the title-deciding showdown.
Fast forward another few weeks and he was at it again, this time back in China for the lucrative International Championship in Chengdu when he edged Australian Open winner Marco Fu 10-9 in a nail-biting finale.
For the first time since Stephen Hendry in 1990 a player had won three ranking titles on the trot, and Ding had another of Hendry’s records within his sight.
The 2005 and 2009 UK champion needed two more ranking event victories to equal Hendry’s once untouchable record for the most accumulated in a single term.
Ding’s streak concluded after he ran out of gas in a UK Championship that was won by Neil Robertson, the Australian beating defending champion Mark Selby to add to his success in the season-opening Wuxi Classic.
But it wasn’t long until he got going again, rising to the occasion in front of 2,500 snooker-adoring fans at the Tempodrom in Berlin to lift the German Masters trophy at the expense of Judd Trump.
Just a month later, Ding had his first chance to equal Hendry’s record of five when he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan in the final of the Welsh Open – the last edition of the event to be held at the Newport Centre.
The Rocket didn’t take as long of a hiatus as in the previous campaign, but he did miss large chunks during the first half of the 2013/14 snooker season.
When he did play, he seemed to win, particularly in the non-ranking events where he thrived among high-quality participants.
O’Sullivan triumphed in the inaugural Champion of Champions with a 10-8 defeat of Stuart Bingham, and then hammered Selby in the final of the Masters.
At this time, despite the fact there was the relatively new two-year rolling system for the world rankings, the standings were still determined by a strange points formula.
It wouldn’t be until the subsequent campaign that a list would be implemented devised from earnings alone, so despite having won the previous two World Championship titles, O’Sullivan was ranked outside the top 16 as a result of his failure to enter most ranking events.
Ding, by contrast, was rapidly rising up the rankings and by the end of that calendar year would be at the number one position for the first time in his career.
Yet, in the Welsh Open final, few really had Ding as the favourite, and so it proved as a dominant O’Sullivan romped to further success, capping a fine display with a superb 147 break in the final frame that sealed the top prize.
Another month later and Ding was back in Beijing, where he conjured up a second shot at matching Hendry’s two-decade old record of five ranking titles in a single campaign.
In front of joyous home support, he coasted to the final where he duly overcame Robertson by a 10-5 scoreline that would, for the time being at least, write his name into the history books.
The World Championship was only a couple of weeks away and a coveted maiden title at the Crucible Theatre appeared to be within his grasp.
But Ding’s disappointment in Sheffield persisted with an incredible 10-9 reverse against Michael Wasley in what is regarded as one of the biggest ever Crucible upsets.
That coveted maiden world title at the end of the 2013/14 snooker season would instead be someone else’s to savour.
Aside from Ding, most of the talk in the build-up to the tournament centred on whether O’Sullivan would be able to secure a threepeat, and apart from a scare against Joe Perry in the second round the Englishman answered all of those questions by coasting through to another final.
With the third in a row and a sixth World Championship in total on the line, O’Sullivan encountered rival Selby, a player who he had only recently labelled as “The Torturer”.
Selby, often through his performances in the Masters, had built up a reputation as being the master of brinkmanship and a protagonist who never, ever knew when he was beaten.
But even so, the Jester’s record in ranking event finals up until this point in his career was mediocre at best, with his defeat to Shaun Murphy in March’s World Open final representing his eighth disappointment from eleven appearances at that stage.
When O’Sullivan established a 10-5 lead in their World Championship fixture, it appeared as though the pattern of misery would continue.
Selby, however, crucially won the last two frames on day one to trail by just three frames overnight, and buoyed by his late-night efforts he was quickly back on level terms on the Bank Holiday Monday afternoon.
Key to the turnaround was Selby’s knack of controlling the table and making it difficult for his esteemed opponent to make frame-winning clearances.
Once Selby went 11-10 in front, O’Sullivan had to dig deep but by now he had taken a mental battering, and the former grew in strength to ultimately pull away and complete a compelling 18-14 success.
Devastated by the loss, it would take years for O’Sullivan to be the same kind of animal again at the Crucible, while Selby was set to become just about unstoppable in Sheffield.
Meanwhile, it was the beginning of the end for another famous player who was once an unstoppable force at the Crucible Theatre.
Steve Davis’ failure to qualify for the venue stages of a the 2014 World Championship meant that the six-time champion placed outside the top 64 in the world rankings list to be relegated from the Main Tour.
An invitational tour card prolonged his career for a while longer, but the Nugget rarely accepted the opportunity to play, and two years later one of the all-time legends of the game put away his cue for good.
Featured photo credit: Monique Limbos