When Michael White won the Indian Open, his first ever major ranking event, the Welshman asserted that his critics could “shut up now”. Celebrations on the night would entail the 23-year-old, through his own confession, ‘getting drunk’. The surprise winner’s brazen disposition was in stark contrast to the pre-tournament favourite and defending champion Junhui Ding’s famed modesty.
The 27-year-old, who was the first and only Asian to reach the world number 1 ranking, has always been a quiet worker, neither overly joyous after a win, nor bitterly disappointed following defeats. His fondness for what his peers deem a mundane simplicity is an aspect he credits to his humble beginning in the sport.
He first came to England when he was 15, with just 500 pounds in his pockets. “I didn’t speak a word of English and I was scared they’d send me back because I didn’t know the language,” he recalled. “I remember shaking when I handed over my passport at immigration because I kept thinking of all the things my parents had sacrificed for me to get here.”
Ding knows a thing or two about sacrifices. He could pursue a career in snooker only after his family sold their house in Dongguan. The city had just one snooker table. Ding’s father, Wen Jun Ding was attracted to the sport and often took his then seven-year-old son with him to the venue, where they would practice for hours. Over a period, the youngster’s skills improved drastically but by the time Wen Jun recognised his son’s potential, the club had sold the table after losing interest in the sport.
“There was nowhere else to play and it was expensive to move to a new city. So my father convinced my mother to sell the house so I could train further,” he said. The move struck a feeling of guilt. “That was my mother’s house and she loved the place. I could see how hurt she was when she decided to let it go. But at the same time, she continued to encourage me. I knew what I had to do,” he said.
No snooker culture
Guangzhou, some 50 km from Dongguan, was his next ‘home.’ Just 12 back then, Ding took advantage of the easy access to snooker tables. But at the same time he was subject to a new method of concentration training he had not imagined before. “There wasn’t a snooker culture in China at that time. So people didn’t know the etiquette required from the audience. People would talk on their phones, move around at will, and most would bring their babies with them,” he remembered. “The babies would cry throughout the match. I had no choice but to get used to it.”
Though the city’s facilities were beneficial and even though he won an individual snooker gold at the 2002 Asian Games, Ding realised a professional career could only be achieved 9,500 km away in the UK. Upon reaching England, he met a few Chinese professionals and learnt the tricks of surviving in a foreign land. Ding, though, was only worried about how to sustain the 500 pounds he had before he could start earning. He lived off small prizes from small tournaments before winning his first major event, ironically, the China Open in 2005.
Life now has got better. He has learnt the language, albeit, he did flunk his English class. “They used to speak too fast,” he said. As the first ever Asian to hit the top of the ranking charts, though it lasted just a week, Ding is the most sought after person for new Chinese players flocking to England in search of a snooker career.
Yet, just as his seniors had done for him, Ding only passes on a few directions and a quick brief on how to settle. “Things in China are now very easy and the kids are given all the facilities. It’s a good thing, but if I spoon-feed or babysit, then they won’t appreciate victory because it was all made too easy,” he added.