China's love affair with snooker continues to grow

By Rob WalkerBBC Sport
Ding Junhui
Ding Junhui

The world's best snooker players are competing in the International Championship in China this week, where enthusiasm for the sport continues to grow.

When you hear about a country, an event or an atmosphere from someone who has been there and experienced it first hand, there can be a natural cynicism about whether it really is as good as they claim.

However, the first few days here in Chengdu have already been more than enough to persuade me that the appetite for the game here is real, and the levels of exposure and publicity are unprecedented.

The opening reception at the biggest tournament in Asian history, the International Championship, underlined this.

Players arrived two at a time on horse-drawn carriages and then walked up an Oscar-style red carpet with hundreds of local snooker fans screaming for autographs and photos.

At the top of the walkway were a series of illuminated red balls. Every player in the tournament signed one before being interviewed live on CCTV (Chinese national television) and disappearing inside for a five-course banquet.

For the experienced and well-travelled, like double world champion Mark Williams, it was probably all in a day's work. However, the moment made a lasting impression on some of the youngest Western players to have made it through to the main draw.

With a total prize fund of £600,000 and a winners' cheque of £125,000, the tournament matches the rewards available at the UK Championship, so it is starting life as the joint second richest ranking event on the annual calendar, behind the World Championship.

Where tournaments in China reveal their infancy is the atmosphere inside the arenas. The noise in the UK is pretty good at most major events - enthusiastic in York for the UK Championship, raucous at Ally Pally for the Masters and nothing compares to the energy and intimacy of the Crucible when the World Championship takes place.

From what I've seen here, the red carpet hysteria is replaced by a more polite applause at match time - although that will surely change as the Chinese relationship with the game develops at a natural pace.

And there is increasing reason for them to cheer, because the sport's popularity is translating into talent on the table - 11 Chinese-speaking players have appeared at the tournament, including 14-year-old Lu Haotian.

He beat emerging Welshman Michael White 6-5 in the wildcard round and, because of the late withdrawal of Ronnie O'Sullivan, the teenage sensation had a bye into the last 16, where he defeated Dominic Dale.

Haotian is already world under-21 champion and the fact he can maintain his composure live on national television shows this country is producing players who not only have genuine talent but the all-important mental strength as well.

And Haotian is not the only one after 1997 world champion Ken Doherty was beaten by 15-year-old Zhao Xintong in a first round final-frame decider.

With world number 12 Ding Junhui showing the way for his country with five ranking event titles and one Masters triumph to his name, it looks as though Chinese snooker is heading in the right direction both on and off the table.

The one big missing accolade is, of course, a World Championship title. In the modern era no Asian player has made it to the final in Sheffield and some would argue that, after seven years of regular appearances on the sport's biggest stage, a Chinese runner-up or winner is overdue.

When that happens, and it is surely a matter of when, rather than if, snooker's historic trophy will head east and the reaction will barely be imaginable.

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