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Home >> Sports
UPDATED: 09:45, March 27, 2007
Nation's hopes rest on rising star
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Sipping hot chocolate in a cafe near Beijing University Students Gymnasium, Xu Xiaoying is all smiles. She has been given four days off by her boss and has tickets to see China's latest sporting sensation, Ding Junhui.

"I want to shout and shout for him and feel the patriotism," said Xu, a 32-year-old accountant who has a black ball painted on one arm and a national flag on the other.

Just like volleyball in the 1980's and women's tennis in the last couple of years, Chinese in their millions are becoming fans of snooker inspired by Ding's success and potential.

Forty of the world's top players will be hoping to win the China Open this week, but 19-year-old Ding will be the center of attention.

"I'm proud of watching Ding play against the big guns. I'm mad about him," said Xu. "I think he is more than an individual. He has started a new craze across the country. I will support him like I'll cry for China at the Olympic Games."

Ten years ago, however, there was no way a snooker tournament would have been so eagerly anticipated.

Cue sports were considered unhealthy and sometimes called "underground and dirty", even though they were among the most-participated sports in the country.

Outdoor tables were seen everywhere on the streets in the early 1990's together with meat skewer and beer stalls. Anything went around the snooker table - smoking, drinking, illegal gambling.

The environment was considered a negative one, and cue sports were strictly prohibited among middle school students. Children caught were given the same punishments as those busted smoking or having sex.

It needed something special to make snooker an acceptable thing for the likes of Xu to spend her holiday watching, and that special something was Ding.

With three Main Tour titles and a string of sparkling performances, his success has elevated him to a stardom only enjoyed by NBA center Yao Ming and record-holding hurdler Liu Xiang.

Chinese fans were so captivated by Ding's emotional exit in the final of the Masters in January that national broadcaster CCTV was forced to reschedule programming to provide live coverage of the final three frames. His home matches in 2006 were the most-watched sports events on CCTV last year.

The tickets to Ding's qualifier against Adrian Gunnell yesterday were sold out a week ago. Hundreds of fans gathered around the Open's venue waving posters and waiting for him to appear and sign autographs.

"Do you see any similarity between snooker and the likes of volleyball, diving and table tennis?" said CCTV Sports Channel director Jiang Heping at a press conference on Sunday. "They are the sports of the whole nation, people laugh and cry for them. When Ding comes to a table ready to compete, everybody sits up and takes notice.

"For us, any TV schedule without snooker is incomplete now."

But amid all the hype, experts are warning against inflated expectations that could end in disappointment.

"It is totally unfair on a 19-year-old boy for people to place all their expectations on him," said Liu Rongyao, snooker manager of China's Multi-ball Games Administrative Centre. "We are raising expectations too high. Ding is still a middle-ranking player among the world elite and is unlikely to win every match.

"If fans cannot accept Ding's setbacks, we will all be in trouble."

Source: China Daily

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