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Ding drives on baize revolution

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Ding celebrates Masters win

By Mark Ashenden
BBC Sport at Wembley

Snooker's marketing team would have been dancing in the streets of Wembley - and Beijing - at the weekend as the game's second biggest tournament conjured up their dream final.

China's Ding Junhui and Hong Kong's Marco Fu. Fierce rivals, close friends, and both from a part of the world the mighty baize is rapidly infiltrating.

Ding's 10-4 triumph - which handed him the famous Masters trophy - might suggest a near rout, but Fu blew key chances in frames four and 11 as the pair contested a fascinating duel.

The 23-year-old victor, not known for showing emotion, could even afford a rare grin after knocking in 85 to bag a fourth successive frame and become only the third player from outside the UK and Ireland [after South African Perrie Mans in 1979 and Canadian Cliff Thorburn in 1986] to win the prestigious event and pocket £150,000.

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"This is the biggest tournament I've won," the two-time UK champion said. "This feels very special. It will be big news in China."

A reported 100 million Chinese TV viewers may have shed a tear as their two superstars embraced at the conclusion of Sunday's drama but if the eight days at the north London arena is anything to go by, the magic wands of these two cue wizards show that the snooker landscape continues to dramatically shift.

None of the top eight seeds made the Masters semis this year. Coincidence perhaps, but the sport's pundits agree playing standards are going through the roof because of more events and more talent from around the planet.

The Ding and Fu battle was the first all-Asian final in a major tournament and with events overseas outnumbering those in the UK for the first time in 2011, as well as the World Open to be played in China, the Middle East or Australia in October, World Snooker chief Barry Hearn must be licking his lips.

There are now seven Chinese players in the world's top 100 with Ding currently ranked number four and Fu 14 places lower. Stephen Hendry, a six-time Masters winner, believes China could own half the top 16 spots within 10 years.

It is an astonishing prediction - and the BBC pundits also think continental Europe is catching up fast, with Germany on top of the pile. But everyone is still far from getting close to the tails of the Chinese.

"This match shows how much the game has changed," six-time world champion Steve Davis said. "Ding and Fu are great players but more importantly it indicates the many others bubbling under the surface. The worldwide game is playing a more significant role.

Ding Junhui

Winner Ding opens final with century break

"Being successful is an incentive for anybody who's got any talent in China, in the same way as boxing was a way out of normality for many people in the United States and the UK.

"If snooker continues to be as popular, it will be a way of hitting the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for anybody with talent in China."

Ken Doherty insisted it was the "shape of things to come" with the 1997 world champion adding: "This will encourage more young kids in Asia. It's growing already but this is something great. Maybe in 10 years we'll see two more Chinese players in the final."

Snooker is also a new addition on the school curriculum in China with academies growing in numbers and the best players handed private tuition.

For the time being though, snooker's growing legion of Asian fans can look forward to a veteran like Fu continuing his incredible renaissance, and, more importantly, hopefully see their favourite son Ding, who remarkably made his Masters debut in 2004 aged 16 a year after moving to the UK, add to his five major titles.

How things have changed since January 2007 when a hostile crowd at Wembley reduced Ding to tears during his 10-3 demolition by three-time world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan in his last Masters final.

Having slowly nurtured his skills as a teenager at the Sheffield academy, Ding admitted this incident against "the Rocket" rocked his confidence and it was another two years before he was able to turn around his wretched form. (Although a 10-9 victory over Fu at the 2008 world championships may have eased some of the pain).

Davis described the tears against O'Sullivan as an "incredible piece of drama", but insisted that Ding had since done "a lot of growing up".

"He's now a different person and now able to take things more on his shoulders and we've seen that this week," added the three-time Masters champion.

A UK crown in 2009, three ranking finals last season and a Players Tour Championship event victory in the current campaign got him in the world's top 16 and with his latest showing at the Masters, it appears 'the Dragon' is back.

For all of Ding's fireworks at the table at Wembley - he produced three tons in the first four frames against Graeme Dott in the quarters, and made one each against Jamie Cope and Fu - it was his safety shot in the 11th frame in the final that will live long in the memory.

Ding's nerves looked shot. He was set to lose three frames on the bounce after the interval having failed five times to escape from a snooker on the yellow.

Fu cleared to the pink but then the opportunity fell to Ding to turn the match on its head. The pressure was immense for a player whose cueing arm had seemingly seized up.

Needing one snooker with only two balls left, Fu found himself nestled behind the pink and after accidentally sinking the cueball, Ding stole it on the black. What looked certain to be a 6-5 lead was now miraculously 7-4 and Fu never recovered.

The frame was "pivotal with a capital P" remarked John Parrott in the commentary box. Even more remarkable, considering the tension and agony at the time, was Fu clapping his opponent's shot when seeing how good the snooker was going to be.

A beautiful sporting moment.

Ding's got the whole game to win the world championships - in time, he will do it

Marco Fu

It was a fairly smooth passage to the final for Ding, with a 6-4 win over two-time world champion Mark Williams, and then comfortable victories over 2006 world champion Graeme Dott and Stoke's rising star Cope.

"He has looked like a champion in the making from the start," said Davis. "He's now turning into the full all-round player.

"His cue action is without fault, he's got an excellent snooker brain among the balls and is maturing as a player. He holds under pressure, his break-building is as good as anybody in the game, he's clinical and doesn't drop his head as much."

The one black mark on Ding's CV is his failure to go beyond the second round at the worlds but the man with few faces, who speaks barely above a whisper, is not getting too worried, despite the clamour for the elusive title from his demanding fans back home.

"I need more experience for the long game and how to concentrate over longer periods, but I don't worry about it. I will stay relaxed," said the player who won the Asian and world under-21 titles at the age of 15.

Spare a thought for Fu, though, whose fightback to beat Mark Allen 6-4 in the semi-finals after trailing 4-1 was a stunning highlight at the Masters.

Even after a miserable defeat, he had the humility to offer hope for his compatriot and conqueror.

"He's got the whole game to win the world championships. In time, he will do it," Fu said.

And with globalisation in snooker gathering momentum fast, it is not total fantasy to envisage Ding soon hoisting the world trophy in front of thousands of screaming fans at the Beijing National Stadium.



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see also
Ding overcomes Fu to win Masters
16 Jan 11 |  Snooker
Fu to face Ding in Masters final
15 Jan 11 |  Snooker
Masters scores and match schedule
16 Jan 11 |  Snooker
Snooker stars show off dance moves
09 Jan 11 |  Snooker
Snooker on the BBC
08 Apr 11 |  Snooker


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