2005 - DING BEATS HENDRY TO WIN CHINA OPEN
China is now seen by most as one of the key areas for expansion but this is less because of some grand commercial strategy and more almost entirely down to one player in one week in 2005.
Ding Junhui may never have been at the China Open in Beijing. He was ranked 76th going into the tournament and thus had to chance his arm at the qualifying scramble in Prestatyn.
The decision was made to withdraw the 17 year-old and enter him into the final stages as a wildcard.
This was controversial with some but at least ensured the prodigiously talented teenager would be seen by his home fans.
The China Open had not been held for three years before heading to Beijing for the first time. It started badly. Tim Howland, the chief executive of World Snooker, was summarily dismissed on the eve of the tournament and Ronnie O’Sullivan pulled out at the last minute.
But Ding was soon off and running, beating Mark Davis 5-2 in the wildcard round before an extraordinary 5-0 demolition of Peter Ebdon, his mentor and one of the first people to spot his potential.
With Chinese journalists not always being the most tactful, the out-played Ebdon was asked in the press conference: “How come you won the World Championship?”
To his credit, he replied: “I was just lucky.”
Ding was a little lucky, too, to see off Stuart Bingham 5-4 in the last 16, helped by a fluked brown in the decider, but he played very well indeed to see off Marco Fu 5-2 and Ken Doherty 6-0 to reach the final.
To put it into context, this would have been like Tim Henman reaching the Wimbledon final. The level of expectancy and sense that a new star had been born was palpable.
A peak viewing audience of 110million watched Ding beat Stephen Hendry 9-5 in the final. This is six times as many people who saw the conclusion of the Taylor-Davis world final in 1985.
Because he was not eligible for prize money or ranking points as a wildcard, Ding did not receive a penny and actually went down the rankings.
But longer term, his victory cemented China’s place in the future of snooker. This vast country had found a player capable of beating the very best and there are now two fully funded ranking events there, with more sure to follow.
For a sport so long dominated by British players, Ding’s victory served as a wake-up call that there is a whole world out there, full of talented cueists looking for their slice of the snooker cake.
Just three years on, there were three Chinese players at the Crucible, with one reaching the quarter-finals.
It surely cannot be long before there is a Chinese world champion.