Baize Watch: Episode 4

The Rise Of China

We looked into the growth of snooker in the Far East and the rising tide of Chinese players making an impact on the table… 

Thirteen years ago the Chaoyang Stadium in Beijing was the stage for a historic moment for snooker, as Ding Junhui’s success became a catalyst for the rise of the sport in China.

The 2005 China Open final was a clash of generations, which turned out to be a watershed moment in the globalisation of snooker. Seven-time World Champion Stephen Hendry took on the then little known 18-year-old Ding.

Ding with his mother after winning the 2005 China Open

Overnight, Ding became a national hero after recording a stunning 9-5 win over the illustrious Scot. Although the media clamour and excitement came at a time when the landscape of the tour was still dominated by the British Isles, snooker in China had gained a figurehead and a poster boy.

The current status of both Ding and the sport in China now is incomparable to the way it was in 2005. Ding has gone on to accumulate multiple major titles and 13-ranking event victories, as well as becoming the first player from Asia to compete in the World Championship final. His run at the Crucible in 2016, which was eventually ended by Mark Selby, captured the imagination back home in China in a tournament which was watched by over 200 million people on national broadcaster CCTV.

Thousands of amateurs have taken up snooker and the 2013 opening of a state of the art WPBSA-CBSA Academy, in Beijing has provided a potential vehicle for some of those who dream of emulating Ding’s feats to achieve their aspirations.

Snooker’s commercial growth in the country is evident in the fact that this year’s China Open will be the first tournament – other than the World Championship – to boast a £1 million prize fund. The winner will collect £225,000 – more than the total prize fund of £200,000 back in 2005.

Of the 21 different nations with players on the World Snooker Tour, mainland China is now easily the second most represented (after England), with 22 professionals. This season alone there have been three different ranking event finalists from China. Cao Yupeng and Yan Bingtao suffered 9-8 defeats at the Scottish Open and Northern Ireland Open respectively, as well as a victory for Ding at the Yushan World Open.

Zhou and Tan

Zhou and Yan with the 2015 World Cup trophy

All of the current crop have made the commitment to move 5,000 miles west to England, where they base themselves during the season. The end location for many of them is Victoria Snooker Academy in Sheffield. The academy is run by former journalist Victoria Shi, who manages a number of the Chinese players on tour and was Ding’s agent for several years.

Shi helps her players adjust to the foreign culture and the challenges associated with leaving their friends and family to move to a different continent.

Shi said: “Snooker is now a commercial sport as well as a social one in China, thousands of people watch and play it. Lots of children are inspired by Ding as they are growing up and want to be like him. That is why you see so many young children in China playing, they want to take up snooker as a career.

“Two of my current players, Zhou Yuelong and Yan Bingtao, have grown up watching Ding and they are now up there competing with him on the tour. My job is to help my players get to the top, because I believe they can. This is just the beginning of a new wave of Chinese players coming through.”

Zhou and Yan were originally products of the WPBSA-CBSA Academy in Beijing and although they are only aged 18 and 20 respectively, they have both already made an impact on the World Snooker Tour. In 2015 the pair enjoyed a remarkable triumph at the Snooker World Cup, competing as China’s B team. They defeated the Scottish duo of John Higgins and Stephen Maguire in the final to win the title.

Last season Yan was named Rookie of the Year, and had he won one more frame in the Northern Ireland Open final against Mark Williams, he would have been the youngest ever winner of a ranking event. The teenager admits that the experience of getting to his first final will prove to be invaluable down the line. He also hopes that his snooker will improve as he gets more used to his surroundings in Sheffield.

“Playing in a final against someone like Mark Williams, I realise the level that I need to get to,” said Yan. “I now understand what it is like and next time I will know how to go about playing in a final.

“I have been here for two years now and I’m still learning English and getting used to the food. It’s been a little bit of a challenge, but that was more at the beginning. I am now starting to get to grips with everything and so are the other Chinese players.”

WPBSA Chairman Jason Ferguson was one of the biggest drivers for the opening of the Beijing academy in 2013. Ferguson believes snooker in China is only going to get bigger off the back of this surge of talent.

Jason Ferguson

Jason Ferguson

Ferguson said: “The CBSA is a glowing example of how to develop a sport from the bottom up.  The structures are right. We have a system where you can compete in your region and go on to compete in your national championship. Then if you are good enough there are opportunities to qualify for the main tour.

“If you look at that alongside what we have been doing with the WPBSA-CBSA Academy and other venues, players now have somewhere where they can receive coaching and support, in conjunction with the training systems developed by our digital media partners, Rigour. As a governing body our job is to provide inspiration and opportunities for all. The opening of the academy put a real marker in the sand. The fact that students from there went on to win the World Cup as part of a B team for China as teenagers was such a great story.”

The wealth of talent lying in wait is such that China can now for the first time realistically look forward to becoming the dominant force in a global sport which, for many years, struggled to develop interest beyond the British Isles. One of the vital next steps in the globalisation of the sport is to welcome through a raft of players from mainland Europe.

Belgium’s Luca Brecel became the first winner of a ranking event from continental Europe earlier this season, with victory at the China Championship. The man he beat that day, Triple Crown winner Shaun Murphy, now believes that snooker must next turn its attentions to Europe.

Murphy said: “We desperately need players like Luca Brecel from Belgium, Lukas Kleckers from Germany and Alexander Ursenbacher from Switzerland to lead the way and show those across the region that you can live the dream playing snooker. The rise of players from continental Europe can’t come soon enough.”

Ursenbacher defeated Murphy on a tremendous run to the semi-finals of this season’s English Open in Barnsley. The Swiss potter is currently playing on the tour by virtue of winning the 2017 European Under-21 Championship, which earned him his card. Ferguson now believes that the introduction of a new Challenge Tour for amateurs next season could play a key role in bringing further players through from Europe and the UK.

“The Challenge Tour is going to create a competitive environment for the best amateurs across Europe,” said the WPBSA Chairman. “To be able to get players used to playing under professional conditions on Star Tables will help to ready them for their career. I’m also hoping it will be an education ground and turn them into true athletes and elite performers on and off the table.

“Across Europe we have 44 federations which are all currently running national championships and are helping to bring through not only players, but referees and coaches as well. There is a lot of talent out there and the likes of Brecel, Kleckers and Ursenbacher are perfect examples.”