Ding Junhui fears for the future of snooker and has outlined how to put the sport back on the pedestal it deserves.
The former world number one vented some frustrations after defeat at the recent Scottish Open, posting on Chinese social media about a very late finish, having waited around for hours to play his match. He was outside the Edinburgh venue after 1am, unable to even get a taxi back to his hotel.
‘I was trying to explain what happens in tournaments,’ Ding told Metro.co.uk of his Weibo post. ‘When you lose games, nobody’s happy, but I wanted to let people see what happens and see if that can change anything.
‘Some tournaments like these, the times they set are not good. They need to get away from that. I don’t think the roll-on-roll off is good for the players.
‘It’s been going on for many years so maybe people are ok with it, but I prefer having a match at a certain time. Players should be able to get ready for the match, know what time we play, then we play our best. We’re not just waiting to see when we play, it’s like a circus.
‘For the fans as well, they want to know when their player is playing, not wait four, five hours and see them at 11pm. Who wants that? Ronnie knows when his time will be, I’m not as famous as Ronnie, but we should respect everyone. There’s only 131 professionals.’
The issue with match times at certain events represented the tip of the iceberg for Ding and his growing dissatisfaction. He fears snooker is in something of a malaise and would like to see things change.
The 14-time ranking event winner led the Chinese boom in snooker when he burst onto the scene in 2005, but he feels the focus has turned to another cue sport in his home country.
‘Chinese 8-ball is becoming stronger, a lot of snooker players have turned to 8 ball and a lot of players have started by learning 8-ball,’ he said. ‘I don’t think snooker is looking good for the future, we need to save the sport.
‘We have a lot of Chinese players now but half of them are just older faces, not new faces coming through who are 16 or 17 years old. I’m not sure the level is there.
‘I don’t see many overseas players from Asia or Europe who are interested to come and play professional snooker. The prize money should be developed a lot. You can compare it with 10 years ago. Everything is so expensive now, so it shouldn’t be the same level.
‘The 8-ball tournaments happen a lot in China. You can win around £50,000, something like that. There’s around 30-50 tournaments like that, so people think there’s no point to come and play snooker.
‘That’s why I suggest we need to put the prize money up. If you can win some tournaments in China, even if you love snooker, what’s the reason to come here to play? People need to earn a living.
‘It’s becoming bigger and bigger and much easier to play on the small table, easy rules. I’ve never played, I’ve never been interested. I still love to play snooker that’s why I hope we can make some changes to make snooker get back to its right place. I don’t want to see snooker falling down.’
Ding feels that snooker needs to showcase itself better, attracting the brightest talents and letting the fans see the best playing the best as often as possible.
He wants to see a return to the tiered system of qualifying, a points-based ranking system – both of which he believes helps develop young players more successfully – and improved prize money, which of course, is easier said than done.
‘The first thing is to change things to make the sport high quality,’ he said. ‘The UK and World Championship, people are interested in that, they’re very good matches, people love to watch the best players kick each other. This is what we want.
‘People don’t want to see things like at the German Masters, where only six of the top 16 have qualified. Who is interested in that? Neil is there, Jack Lisowski, I can’t even remember who else.’
The UK Championship returned to the tiered system of qualifying this season, with the tournament appearing to be a very successful one in York.
Ding feels the events with a flat 128 draw cannot have the appeal of a tiered system as matches can be too easy for top players early on, whereas at the main stage of the UK, the opening round was full of memorable contests.
‘Some tournament like the Home Nations they make the first round at the venue, but it’s still not good,’ he said. ‘Judd plays someone he should beat very, very easily, still people are not interested because there is no point.
‘If England play some unknown team, do you want to watch? You always want to show the best on TV. Even if Judd plays very, very bad he’ll still win 4-0. It’s not interesting for people.
‘We want to see the players fully concentrated, fully ready to play every match, that’s how the players need to be and the tournaments need to push the players to be like that. Not first round as a practice, a warm up. Second round still maybe the same, third round maybe even still! Who knows.
‘The UK and the World Championship, it’s better, every match is good. You can see with your eyes that it’s working well. People are not interested in not interesting games.’
The argument against a tiered system is that there is too much protection for the top 16 players in the world, but having been in that bracket, and now just outside it, Ding feels those players deserve the benefits of their success.
‘We always talk about what’s special about being in the top 16. Playing in the Masters, qualifying for the UK and the World Championship. That’s not special,’ he said. ‘You get in the top 16 you deserve that, you should be in those tournaments, that’s not special.
‘Playing the top players all the time is special. That’s how to improve the sport. That’s why the English Premier League is the most famous in the world. In Spain there’s only two or three teams, who wants to watch the other games? No chance.
‘We love to play the UK, we don’t mind to play qualifiers, because if you’re not top 16 you should go to the qualifier, when you survive that you play the top 16. If you want to be top 16 you’ve got to work hard, survive in the qualifiers and beat the top 16, then you’ll be in the top 16. That’s how to make players improve. That’s why top 16 can be special.’
While the flat 128 draws were brought in to provide more opportunity to lower-ranked players and youngsters making their way onto the professional tour, Ding reckons it has made things harder for them.
He feels the players that came through as professionals in the tiered system, before 2013, have a level of consistency that pros since then do not, while any success that younger players do achieve is too wildly rewarded on a money-based ranking system.
‘I think they need to make the right rules for the players, so they can grow,’ said the three-time UK champion, ‘A lot of players like me, Mark Allen, Neil Robertson, Ricky Walden, Martin Gould, we all turned pro in similar years. Climbed up by ourselves, and we’re in that top level, everyone’s there, no one’s bad.
‘This is the difference between two systems, we can see the players’ levels are different, the quality is different. Other people can win a tournament, but they are not consistent.
‘It’s not good for the young ones who win once, say they win the UK, they’re in the top 16 but their level is not there yet. They’ve just played good in one week. What’s the point after? It damages them a lot, damages confidence, damages everything.
‘They can climb the rankings too fast, they feel like they’re at a level but they’ve only played good for three or four days. They didn’t actually learn that quick, nobody tells them and they confuse themselves. Why am I losing? Why am I playing bad when I practice perfect?
‘Even when you play good, you don’t win every match or every tournament, you can still lose, that’s why people like sports.’
Ding also feels that, far from expanding the game with better opportunities, the flat draws make it far too difficult for players from outside the UK to make any kind of impact in the sport.
‘If you say this is World Snooker, I don’t see the world,’ he said. ‘It’s British, Chinese, some Thai players, Neil. I don’t see many European players, just a couple of countries.
‘You’ve got to give some opportunities for other countries, but the system is not good for them. New players can easily get top 16 in first rounds, that’s the problem.
‘The Grand Prix, Players Championship, Tour Championship, how do you get into those if you play Judd, Neil, Ronnie every time?
‘They need opportunities to win some matches, get to the next round with some ranking points and find their chances. They can take it step by step, slowly, slowly. No one can play the first year and beat everyone, no one.
‘Coming from a different country you have to take care of yourself. Find somewhere to rent a flat, find somewhere to practice, pay practice fees, booking hotels, flights, everything by yourself. There’s not going to be help. You don’t have money to pay a team to look after everything.
‘That’s why the prize money doesn’t cover that. Maybe you earn £30-40,000 a year, that could be everything you spend on tour, there’s nothing left, so what’s the point? The prize money should have improved.’
With just three players in the world’s top 16 under the age of 30, it does seem clear that the system is not producing enough top young players and Ding fears for the future when the veterans at the top of the game eventually retire.
‘I worry about it, because players are getting old,’ he said. ‘You can’t always expect one player to bring in a market like me, I’m getting old too. After five or 10 years what are you going to do in the Chinese market? I can’t be any help. Hopefully the young ones will do well.
‘They say 25 is very young now in snooker, but for me it’s not young. It’s like a middle age of this sport.
‘You can play till 45, but you imagine Ronnie or whoever, if they played all their tournaments in China or somewhere out of UK, do you think they would come to play? They would be retired at 40, nobody would want to play because they’re away from family, from their homes, the food they love.
‘I don’t think they’d like to live in different countries. I don’t think they’d continue to play snooker. They play all the tournaments in the UK or Europe so it’s easy to play till 45 and keep playing. If I was playing 10 tournaments in China I could play till 60 because it’s easy to travel, but all over the world, can I play till 50? No.’
Covid has put a stop to Chinese tournaments for now, which has been a huge blow to the sport, but Ding sounds confident that they will return to the circuit soon.
He warns that there might not be the level of investment that there was previously, but says there is still plenty of interest in the game when snooker does return to China.
‘Hopefully next season everything will be back on but I’m not sure because a lot of companies lost a lot of money and a lot shut down because they had no business for three years,’ he said. ‘Maybe a few tournaments will happen, but I’m not sure. The Shanghai Masters will be ok, the others I’m not sure.
‘People are interested. They have had three years with no live snooker.’
Ding is keen to point out that he still has high hopes for snooker and players are not always the ones that have all the answers, but he hopes they are listened to.
‘It’s a great sport,’ he said. ‘Players feelings fly up and down, but it’s worth thinking about because sponsors may think different too. Sometimes you think they are not interested, but maybe they are. Let’s try different things.’