World Snooker Championship Betting: Ding's been brilliant but he could still face a China crisis
China's Ding Junhui is the new favourite for snooker's Blue Riband tournament but Ralph Ellis wonders if he can handle the weight of expectation back home...
"The audience figures will be dwarfing the Super Bowl again this morning as Ding begins his quarter-final against Barry Hawkins. He’s [1.5] favourite to go through, and following the exit of first Mark Selby then O’Sullivan is [3.65] favourite to waltz away with the title itself."
What's the biggest TV event in World Sport? The Superbowl, right? Has to be - 103.4 million people watched this year and that's why it costs more than five million dollars for a 30 second advert, isn't it?
Wrong. Go to China and see what happens when Ding Junhui is in a World Snooker final. The audience when he lost to Mark Selby in 2016 was 210 million.
In the Western world where Ronnie O'Sullivan appears to be the game's biggest box office figure, you tend to lose sight of what a huge star Ding is. Head to Shanghai and you'd know - we're talking about a player who has been the inspiration for a generation of young Chinese stars who are threatening to take over the game.
The audience figures will be dwarfing the Super Bowl again this morning as Ding begins his quarter-final against Barry Hawkins. He's [1.5] favourite to go through, and following the exit of first Mark Selby then O'Sullivan is [3.65] favourite to waltz away with the title itself.
On form so far you wouldn't argue. After blowing away fellow countryman Xiao Guodong 10-3 in the first round he stormed into an 8-0 lead on the way to beating Anthony McGill.
But watching him being interviewed after completing that 13-4 win over McGill I would worry about backing him for the title. You'd think he'd have been a man full of confidence, instead he was talking about how his form can come and go.
That's back to the pressure thing. Ever since he first appeared at The Crucible in 2007 he's been expected, back home, to be the first man from China to win it. Everybody wants that, and the weight of that expectation must be unbearable.
He's approaching his 31st birthday now, and knows himself that if it was just about the snooker he would already have four or five world titles. It isn't. It's a mental battle for him.
"How to take off the pressure and just play is the hardest part," he told an interviewer from the American magazine Time recently. And for all the brilliance of his displays at the Crucible so far I'm not convinced he's yet solved that conundrum.
No form this season
I'm aware this could be overtaken very quickly this morning, and maybe there's a bit of wishful thinking because I've backed Mark Allen for the title at [22.0] and have also had a cheeky tenner on Kyren Wilson after doing the Betfair Big Interview with him. (They play each other this afternoon, so one of them is in the semi-finals).
But I look at Ding's form coming to The Crucible and there's nothing in this season to suggest he can go the distance at any tournament, never mind the biggest of the lot. He's won one ranking event and reached one final this season, and at The China Open - when again he's under the most pressure from his homeland to deliver - he missed a game ball before going out to Wilson.
That final against Selby, and his two semi-final appearances, have all been close contests but he's never been able to get across the finishing line and I can't see a reason for him to change that now.
So having successfully laid O'Sullivan when he was pre-tournament favourite, I'll be doing the same thing now with Ding. I can't help thinking that all those 210 million people are in for another disappointment.