What next for Ding Junhui after Crucible exit?

When Ding Junhui won the UK Championship in 2019, it was seen as a watershed moment that would reignite his career. Having been in the doldrums for a couple of years, the win over Stephen Maguire in the final saw Ding produce some of his best snooker in years, and many were tipping him to truly re-establish himself as a favourite on the sports betting sites.

Flash forward two and a half years, and Ding Junhui has exited the World Snooker Championship in the first round for the second successive season. He has faced difficult draws in the form of Stuart Bingham last year and Kyren Wilson this time around, but the reality is that Ding’s levels of performance have dropped significantly over the last few campaigns.

The 35-year-old can count himself somewhat unlucky to have faced such difficult opponents in Sheffield in the last two seasons. He was seeded last year, and happened to draw one of the most dangerous qualifiers in the form of former world champion Bingham. This time around, it was Ding who had to qualify, but to draw Crucible specialist Wilson when he could have landed a lower-ranked seed was somewhat unfortunate.

It’s not that Ding’s overall performances in either of those matches have let him down as such, but the more worrying thing is that he does not seem to have the required killer instinct to get the better of the top players in close matches.

He’ll look back on his loss to Wilson as a missed opportunity. With the scores level at 8-8, Ding had a golden opportunity to steal the 17th frame after his opponent had got in first. But a poor positional shot from brown to blue ultimately led to Ding missing a difficult pink, and Wilson eventually took the frame.

The same thing happened in the following frame, where once again Ding was presented with an opportunity to pinch it, but ran into trouble once more. These are the fine margins at the highest level, and Ding just wasn’t able to produce his best when it mattered most.

What is a betting exchange favourite when it comes to snooker? Well, it’s a player who has the ability to find moments of inspiration when they truly need them. The likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Selby have forged their careers on the back of that innate talent, and although Ding had it in his pomp, he seems to have lost that X factor since.

Next season will be a big one. Ding is currently 32nd on the provisional end of season rankings, which is a lot further down the list than his talents suggest he should be. There have been mitigating factors in his slide. The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc with his personal life, forcing him to balance his playing career in the UK with his family life back in China.

That will take its toll on any player, but with things gradually returning towards normality, Ding will have a better platform over the next couple of years to restore his reputation as one of the game’s most gifted cueists. The quality is still there, and while things haven’t gone Ding’s way lately, you feel it is only a matter of time before he gets back to his best.

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