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It's a totally different ball game now
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08:39, April 03, 2008

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Even 10 years ago, Xiao Qian would have been called a "real bad boy". The 14-year-old student talks, eats and sleeps snooker - he actually sleeps with a cue. He spends four hours a day in a snooker club because his biggest dream is to become a snooker champ and to play for the rest of his life.

But today Xiao is considered a prodigy. His father bought him tickets to fly from and to the southern city of Shenzhen for a training camp during China Open in Beijing, which concluded on Monday. There is no parental pressure against or indifference to his love for the sport. To top it, he gets (as he did at the Beijing training camp) personal instructions from world-class players like Stephen Hendry and Mark Williams.

"I think I should thank Ding Junhui in person (for the changed scenario)," says Xiao's uncle Xu Tianyu, who accompanied him to Beijing. "The game's image has changed totally (in China) because of him. The respect cueists get today is no different from that earned by other sportsmen. It's something one couldn't have thought of even a decade ago."

Volleyball underwent a similar transformation in the 1980s. And women's tennis entered the popular public domain a couple of years ago. Though there can be more than one reason for these changes, Ding is the decisive factor for the unprecedented popularity enjoyed by snooker in China today.

"Ding has helped lift the sport from the back alleys to the mainstream," says Wang Liwei, deputy director of the Multi-ball Administrative Center (MBAC), the sport's governing body in China. "It's simply terrific. Nobody could imagine that one day the Chinese people would opt for a snooker match on TV, and parents would allow their children to learn the tricks and trades of the sport, instead of making them sweat it out in ping pong, volleyball or other traditional games."

Till the 1990s, billiards, snooker and pool were considered "unhealthy". They were even called "underground and dirty" games, even though millions of people were playing them. Outdoor tables were evident almost everywhere, even on streets near kebab and beer stalls. A lot of activities used to take place around the tables, from smoking and drinking to illegal gambling. For these very reasons, such an environment was considered negative and schoolchildren were prohibited from playing any of the cue sports. And those who slipped out and tried their hand on the tables got the worst possible dressing down if they were caught.

But Ding's fast rise in the sport changed all that. Once he became the world champion as a teenager, people's mindset changed drastically. That is why children like Xiao today get the full backing of their parents to take up the sport as a profession. The 21-year-old from Jiangsu province has cleansed the sport, especially pro tournaments, of the associated dirt and filth, attracted the attention of the mass media and given the "bad boys" a good name.

Ding arrived on the world stage in 2005 when he beat Hendry in the China Open to win his first ranking tournament. Such was the attraction that 110 million Chinese watched it on TV. More success followed later that year - he won the UK championship, beating another great, Steve Davis. Three Main Tour titles and a string of sparkling performances catapulted Ding to stardom, and today only NBA center Yao Ming and champion hurdler Liu Xiang can claim to be more popular than him.

"Ding deserves his popularity as much as Yao and Liu because he has elevated snooker to new heights (in China)," says MBAC snooker director Zhang Xiaodong. "His contribution is perhaps greater (than Yao's and Liu's) because snooker used to be a street sport till a few years ago."

His clash with world No 1 Ronnie O'Sullivan at the Masters topped the viewership chart of China Central Television (CCTV) sports channel last year, says channel director Jiang Heping. He goes more than a step further and says "any TV schedule without snooker is incomplete".

Tickets for Ding's first round match against Joe Perry last week were sold out a week ago. Hundreds of fans gathered around the venue, waving posters and waiting for him to appear and sign autographs. Such is snooker's popularity that "people laugh and cry for it, just like volleyball or diving", Wang says. "When a sport attracts hundreds of millions of people, no one can ignore its power."

Ding's winning streak not only made snooker a hot sport in China, but also showed the Chinese a path to the once elusive professional world of the game. After Ding's success, more Chinese have visited England to chase their snooker dreams. Four Chinese players made their names on the Main Tour circuit last year - Liu Song (ranked No 54), Tian Pengfei (77), Xiao Guodong (82) and Liu Chuang (86).

Despite their lack of experience, the exciting youngsters have made China the most competitive country for snooker after the UK and Australia, which has eight of the top-96 players. Liu Song, for instance, entered his first professional semi-final at the Royal London Watches Grand Prix in October last year. Pundits first recognized the talent of the Tianjin-born Beijing resident when he reached the last-32 at the Welsh Open three years ago, saying he was "one to watch" for the future. Last year saw Tian at his best too, for he fought his way up to three main draws from qualifiers.

"Ding has opened the window to the world of snooker. Chinese players today know what is happening outside, and that's very important," Zhang says. "He's a trailblazer. He has proved to millions of Chinese families that professional dreams can be realized. And he has made sponsors realize there's a huge (snooker) market out there."

The MBAC has been cooperating with World Snooker, the commercial arm of professional snooker's governing body, the World Professional Billiards & Snooker Association, for the past three years to run clinics and training camps to lift the sport to a professional level in China and "import as many pro events as possible".

The State General Administration of Sports did not provide any financial support to this non-Olympic sport before 2006. Hence, most teenage hopefuls would opt for local amateur clubs. But all that changed last year, when the MBAC spent 1 million yuan ($130,000) on snooker, Zhang says. It helps players take part in tournaments overseas and develop the sport at the grassroots level. The MBAC will also raise its budget allocation after the Beijing Olympics.

Negotiations are under way with World Snooker to organize some small international events too. "We're working to hold 10 more international competitions in China," Zhang says. "That will help our players win more ranking points and gain more experience without having to pay huge amounts to travel and play abroad."

The TV ratings have not gone unnoticed either for a sport still struggling to break out of its British heartland: World Snooker's only staffed international office is in Beijing and it gave China its second pro tournament in Shanghai this year - a move backed by the big names in the sport. "China has made a strong impact on the sport - not only on its players, but also on the growing atmosphere," says former world champion Jimmy White. "Everybody is learning to appreciate snooker, from fans and the media to sponsors and officials."

Hendry also said that China is set to become a major player in the world of snooker. "I think China will become a major snooker base in the near future (The Chinese) are getting more professional year by year, and I've seen great improvement. The (Shanghai) tournament is great for the sport and great for Chinese fans. The idea to give local players eight wildcards is very good and the boys also proved they could play as well as their British counterparts."

With such fruitful developments and rising popularity, snooker can only become a major sport in China.

Source: China Daily

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