Ding’s final fightback keeps Crucible dream alive

Ding Junhui at the table.
Ding Junhui at the table.

Ding Junhui produced a stunning fightback to keep alive his hopes of becoming the first Asian snooker player to win the Betfred World Championship.

The Sheffield-based potter froze in the spotlight on the Crucible stage as world No 1 Mark Selby romped into a 6-0 lead in their best-of-35 frame final.

With an estimated 100 million people back in his homeland China watching on television, it seemed the pressure of appearing in his first world final was too much for the 29-year-old.

But Ding rallied to produce some trademark big breaks to slash the deficit to 8-7, before Selby won the final two frames to go 10-7 ahead as the session went beyond midnight.

An incredible 27.1 per cent of China’s national TV audience watched Ding’s semi-final match, and an estimated 100 million tuned in on Sunday.

Compare that to the 18.5m viewers who watched Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis in the 1985 ‘blackball final’ – still a BBC 2 record audience.

Mark Selby (left) and Ding Junhui shakes hands before the start of the 2016 Betfred Snooker World Championship Final.

Mark Selby (left) and Ding Junhui shakes hands before the start of the 2016 Betfred Snooker World Championship Final.

“They will be going crazy back home for this,” Ding said before the final. “Around 100m people will be watching me, and this is the smallest figure probably.

“I know that they want me to well, to win it and bring the trophy back home, but I will remain calm and stay in my space because there is another match.”

The way he started on Sunday, he looked anything but calm and in control as he chased a £330,000 first prize.

Ding thrives as a front-runner, having opened up healthy leads in all four Crucible games to reach the final. He led Martin Gould 4-1 in his first-round win, then in the next three matches he was 6-2 up after the opening session against Judd Trump, Mark Williams and Alan McManus.

The Crucible Theatre.

The Crucible Theatre.

But on Sunday the 29-year-old just failed to get started.

Former world champion Neil Robertson called it on Twitter. “Ding must score from his 1st chances in frames, if they go more than 20 min Selby will dictate,” said the Australian.

Trailing 4-0 at the mid-session interval was not in the script.

Selby opened with a 91, and then found the snooker needed to haul back Ding who looked set to level after a 52 break. Even then, Ding had a chance to make it 1-1, but an ill-advised cut on the green gifted Selby the second frame.

Ding needed to score heavily, but once again he stumbled on a 35 break, attempting a tricky red down the cushion, and Selby nipped in with a 76 clearance.

At 3-0 down, Ding was kicking himself as he could have been leading 2-1. But his lack of frame-winning visits meant the match was a tactical exchange, and Selby was in his comfort zone.

And the next two frames followed the same path. Both had chances, but Selby took his with breaks of 120 and 70.

Ding has won 11 ranking events, including the UK and Masters titles, but dropped out of the elite top 16 after a first-round exit in the China Open last month.

That meant he was forced to endure three qualifying games just to reach the televised stages at the Crucible. His journey to the final started on April 9 when he beat Greg Casey at the nearby Ponds Forge sports centre.

He has won 83 frames over the past three weeks to reach this point, and needs to hit 101 to be crowned world champion tonight.

But it was a struggle to see where his next frame would come from.

Ding again had a chance in the sixth frame, but ran out of position and the break ended on 38.

And yet again, Selby came on top in the safety exchanges to open up a 6-0 lead.

It was a huge contrast to Ding’s 17-11 semi-final win over McManus, where he became the first player to make seven centuries in a single match, and along with McManus, set a Crucible record of 10 tons in their contest.

At 6-0, it was crucial Ding got on the scoreboard.

Three times he had chances, but twice played poor positional shots then missed a long-range red, and Selby looked favourite again.

But the Leicester potter missed the final blue, allowing a relieved Ding to nip in and take the final two frames of the afternoon session.

If Ding does become the snooker’s first Asian world champion tonight, that missed blue yesterday in frame seven will be a key moment.

The pair traded frames at the start of last night’s session, Ding pinging his highest break of the final so far with 76.

Suddenly the confidence flooded back and Ding – who moved to Sheffield in 2007 – was starting to show the scoring power which got him to the final.

Breaks of 103 and 89 suddenly saw Ding slash the deficit to 7-5. Selby held his nerve to take the 13th frame, but Ding’s comeback was gathering speed and he knocked in an 86 clearance. He then followed up with 55, cutting the deficit to just one, after a frame which lasted well over an hour.

Ding looked shattered, and Selby picked up the next frame to go 9-7 ahead.

Both players had chances in the final frame of the evening, but as the clock passed midnight, it was Selby who came out on top to take a 10-7 lead when the match resumes at 2pm on Monday.

Selby, winner in 2014, has a chance of becoming only the sixth player, after Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Mark Williams, John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan, to win multiple world titles. He also reached the 2007 final, but lost out to Higgins.

Selby struggled against Marco Fu in his semi-final, but crawled over the finish line, and admitted he would have to improve his game against Ding.

“I can’t believe I’m sitting here the winner,” said Selby after Saturday night’s semi-final win. “For three sessions there I was really poor, I was more or less hanging on.

“Marco seemed to be doing all the scoring. He was more relaxed than me, as if he was just walking to the shops to get a loaf of bread, and there’s me like a cat on a hot tin roof.”

Tickets for next year’s final - the 40th anniversary at Sheffield’s famous Crucible Theatre = actually go on sale today.

To book call 0844 65 65 147 or visit www.cruciblesnooker.com