BEIJING, March 7 -- Ding Junhui picked up a snooker cue when he was a young boy and was relentlessly breaking records until two years ago when he hit a slump. But last year he scooped up the UK championship title and is back in the winner's frame with a new lease on life, Elise Fu reports.
Ding Junhui is probably the best snooker player in China. Ever. He first picked up a cue when he was eight-and-a-half-years old and won his first championship title at the Asian Games at age 15. He is the youngest player in the game to shoot 147, the maximum break possible.
A prolific breakbuilder when on form, it took him only five seasons to compile a century of centuries, a record he shares with England's Ronnie "The Rocket" O'Sullivan. As China's first world snooker champion, he achieved all these milestones before turning 20.
Ding, 23 and known to the foreign media as "China Ding," looks like the boy who never grew up, baby-faced and dressed away from the snooker table in T-shirt and jeans.
But in the past two years, the golden boy's luster had faded and a string of poor performances rankled with the fans.
At the Wembley Masters Snooker Championships in January 2007, The Rocket's dominance in the 12th frame combined with the boisterous and hostile nature of the audience drove Ding to tears.
His reaction earned him the derisory title of "the boy who cries when losing."
In the years following that match, Ding struggled to stay within the top 16 rank as his performance deteriorated and he looked down the cue with a loss of confidence and the specter of losing every time he played.
"That period was really hard for me and I felt so tired," he said.
But by last Christmas, the tide had already turned when Ding showed up in Shanghai for a snooker contest between Shanghai and Beijing universities.
Although he lost a demonstration game with the glamorous Pan Xiaoting, lauded as the "Queen of Nine Ball" and one of China's most famous female players, the applause rang out for the man.
That's because just a few days earlier, on December 14, Ding won the 2009 United Kingdom Snooker Championship by defeating Scotland's John Higgins in the final.
The fans didn't spare their cheers when Ding brought home his fourth world ranking championship title, lauding this "snooker genius" who had a remarkable return to form after being off his game for two years.
"I did not set any goal before the 2009 United Kingdom Snooker Championship, but practiced a lot, at least seven hours every day," Ding said.
Although described by media and fans as an iron fist in a velvet glove, he is quite shy.
"Ding is a steady going man for someone so young. He barely talks and keeps his opinions to himself," said Zhang Meng, his agent and best friend.
Ding credits his turnaround to the personal confidence he gained from the encouragement and support of family and friends who "helped me to adjust myself and get through all the difficulties."
"Sometimes I just totally put aside snooker and went around the world with my family and friends to relax and just talk," he said.
"My father and my agency also arranged some college courses for me. All of these have made my life more colorful and I have become much livelier," Ding said.
While his rise to fame and dominance in the snooker world has been rapid, and in some senses unprecedented, it was all a bit of a gamble instigated by his father.
The snooker genius was born in 1987 in Yixing, Jiangsu Province, a place rich in culture and famous for boccaro, a fine grained red porcelain stoneware.
His father, Ding Wenjun, was a major fan of snooker and set up two tables for people to pay-for-play outside his small shop selling cigarettes and wine.
When young Ding Junhui first pocketed a colored ball at the age of eight, his father decided to nurture him into a professional snooker career. Just a year later, Ding was unbeatable in his hometown. Formal training started when he turned 11 and he began playing in senior events before his height equaled that of a cue. Despite his size, adult opponents found they were incapable of containing the precocious youth.
Ding's family did everything to support his development, allowing him to quit school to fully concentrate on training. They sold their property and relinquished the small business to move to Dongguan, Guangdong Province, where the national snooker team trains.
His dad worked as a casual laborer to support the family and with no extra money for rent, father and son lived in a five-square-meter space partitioned off the corridor at the end of local snooker club's dormitory. At this time Ding dreamed of being able to afford a home of his own.
After becoming famous, Ding wrote an autobiography named "I Bet My Life On Snooker." It has since been published as "My Successful Road to the Championship," due to the negative connotations of the word "bet."
Ding's father's methods of training his son for a snooker career, including letting him quit regular school, have become the subject of dispute and been seen as gambling with the boy's future.
But the son will have none of it.
"I believed in my father," Ding said in defence of his dad's focus. "When we had no pennies in our pockets, I made a resolution to repay my family for all the sacrifices they made for me."
Ding Wenjun arranged almost everything for his young son up to selecting a management agent for him in 2005. During his performance slump, Ding Wenjun agreed with the manager that his son should enter college to study business administration.
"I like to read books about history and military. And now l also read some biz-related ones due to my studies in that field," Ding said. "From this major, which includes administration principles, I learned how to deal with things in life and in the game, which I found really helpful."
Ding's first class in Shanghai Jiao Tong University was lectured by Professor Wang Fanghua, dean of the university's Antai College of Economics and Management. Ding also picked up lessons on public relations and psychology.
"I like 'The Three Kingdoms' in which there are many wise characters, especially Zhuge Liang," he said.
"I recently just finished reading Jack Welch's 'Winning,' which not only includes the management of companies, but, to some extent, also helps the reader to face problems and get through difficulties."
"China Ding" has grown up during his form recession. He has silenced the critics and consigned any disputes to history, perfecting not only his talent on the green baize, but also enriching his life, fortifying his soul and improving his public image.
"When I was a boy, I had fun playing this sport, especially when the ball dropped into the hole. It gave me a great sense of accomplishment," he said.
"But now, after digging deeper, I found that snooker is a sport that makes you use your head and think hard. It helps you to have a broader view and teaches you to how to face difficulties and get through them."
As a result of his form reversal to the ultimate triumph at the end of 2009, the UK Championship netted him, according to some reports, ¢Xí144,525 (1.47 million yuan/US$216,270) for the season.
It was Ding's second UK and fourth ranking title, having previously won the 2005 China Open, the 2005 UK Championship and the 2006 Northern Ireland Trophy. For these titles, Ding defeated the four greatest players of the last 30 years: Stephen Hendry (Scotland), Steve Davis (England), O'Sullivan and now Higgins.
Ding is now resident in Britain where training and playing, badminton and basketball fill his life. But this college student said that he has already started to learn "money management." And during the school holidays, he helped his father manage their "Billiards City" business, although "control of money is still in my father's hands."
In January this year, Ding failed to sustain his success at the Wembley Masters Snooker titles and 2010 Welsh Open, but this time he did not get upset. There is still a very long road ahead for one who has had great success at a very young age.
Compared to the rankings, the titles and the scores, "China Ding's" personal growth makes his future even more promising.