Ding Junhui isn’t wearing the requisite waistcoat and bowtie of the professional snooker circuit, but even dressed in a baggy jogging suit, he isn’t difficult to pick out of the crowd. Ball after ball vanishes as Ding glides around the green baize, wielding his cue with metronomic ease. “I’m trying to make my rhythm more relaxed so games are like practice routines,” he tells TIME between training sessions at his snooker club in northwest Beijing. “How to take off the pressure and just play is the hardest part.”
All top sportsmen must deal with the weight of expectation, though it’s hard to imagine a burden comparable to Ding’s. China’s most successful player has been hailed by World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn as “the true superstar of the sport” in China, and more than a quarter of his homeland’s television viewing public — some 210 million people — tuned in to see his World Championship final defeat in 2016. (That’s double the viewers of last year’s Super Bowl.) The World Championship begins again on April 21 and Ding is determined to realize his potential by finally seizing the game’s top prize. (Eventual champion Mark Selby knocked him out at the semifinal stage last year.)
“To win the World Championship and to be world number one is the target for the next few years,” says Ding, his cherubic face and softly spoken demeanor masking inner steel that has seen him claim 13 ranking titles. “This is very hard, I know, because [snooker] careers are quite short. I’m now just over 30. There is just only one thing, to keep going and find more chances to win.”
Snooker is an unfamiliar sport for many Americans — a cousin of cue games like pocket billiards, though played on a surface about four times the size of your average pub pool table. Snooker has grown wildly popular in Asia following the success of Ding and Hong Kong’s Marco Fu. The winner of the World Championship takes home a cool $600,000 in prize money, which is many times the purse for the pool equivalent. About 70 million people are estimated to play cue sports in China each week, with thousands of snooker and pool clubs strewn across both big cities and donkey-cart towns.
Read more: How Snooker Swept China’s Sporting World
As a result, Hearn’s bold prediction that half of snooker’s top 16 will soon hail from China doesn’t look farfetched. “The future’s so bright, I should be wearing sunglasses,” five-time snooker World Champion Ronnie O’Sullivan said of upcoming Chinese talent at last year’s Evergrande China Championship. A raft of top young Chinese players have joined the professional tour, many inspired by Ding’s achievements. Although Ding was briefly world number one, he currently ranks third. There will be four other Chinese players — Li Hang, Cao Yupeng, Xiao Gudong and Yan Bingtao — chalking up at the legendary Crucible Theatre this month. “I picked up the cue all because of watching him,” Yan, 18, has said of Ding. “He is like an elder brother to all of us. We worship him.”
There is a superhuman quality to mastering snooker; rounded pockets and a lightening-quick surface render the sport less forgiving than pool, with titanic concentration required to build large scores. It’s also a rare sport where true perfection is possible. Team games like soccer or basketball contend with myriad external factors, whereas even tennis and golf matches may turn on a gust of wind or peculiar divot. The snooker table, by contrast, is like a vacuum; every facet is controllable, every shot theoretically possible. Top players only ever really play against themselves, meaning defeat always entails an avoidable blunder. This adds a significant psychological burden. “With football, sometimes you don’t play well but your team mates are playing great, so you still can win,” says Ding. “With snooker you have to win everything yourself. It’s a more of a mental game.”
It’s one that Ding has been honing since he was just eight years old, when his father spotted his son’s potential on the communal pool table below the family’s apartment in China’s eastern province of Jiangsu. Before long his parents sold their home and grocery business and moved the family 1,000 miles south Guangdong province — considered China’s snooker Mecca — so Ding could work with the nation’s best professional coaches. He was pulled out of school to concentrate solely on snooker at just 12 years old, winning the Amateur Championships at 14 and turning pro at just 16.
As a teenager, Ding was sent to the British steel-smelting city of Sheffield, where the World Championship takes place each year. Stepping off the plane alone without speaking any English was a jolting experience. “It was scary at first,” he says. “I was always very shy. Every day I just wished to see another snooker player to play with.” But Ding is sanguine about missing out on simple childhood pleasures, insisting that the only pressure he ever felt was from himself. “Everyone of the age 10 or 11 likes to have some childlike time, to play some games,” says Ding. “This is what I lost… now I am getting something back.”
Ding Junhui of China looks on during his first round match against Kyren Wilson of England at the Dafabet Masters in London on Jan. 15, 2017.
Dan Mullan—Getty Images
Still, from diving and gymnastics to table tennis, China has a reputation for putting inordinate pressure on young athletes that can verge on abuse. Parents are lured to surrender talented children to state sporting academies on promises of national glory and future commercial spoils. There, kids train until tendons snap and retinas detach, while neglecting regular studies. Some 45% of former athletes in China fail to find work after retirement, according to a 2010 report by the state-run Nanjing Daily newspaper. The nation’s best snooker players are recruited by the CBSA World Snooker Academy in Beijing, where 30 pupils from six to 22 years old play from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday, according to the BBC.
For Ding, spending endless days alone with a snooker table is ultimately counterproductive. He says Chinese players often lack tactical and defensive instincts because they are used to clearing up every ball in just one visit. “But if you lose your concentration, lose your plotting, you’ve got nothing left,” he says. But even more damaging can be the psychological toll of isolation on youngsters. After eight to ten hours a day with just a snooker table for company, “I would get outside and forget how to speak to people, because you spend all day alone in a room,” he says. “It’s too much.” Ding says the game quickly went from being an all-engrossing passion to feeling “more like a day job.” Today, though, “I try to enjoy it more,” he says.
Ding hopes rekindling his love for the game can help spur him to the world title. Today, practice sessions last just three hours a day, and he books regular free time traveling the world and not thinking about snooker. More importantly, he isn’t lonely on or off the green baize. His wife is expecting their first child — “I don’t know what to do, so I have to learn quick!” Ding says — though he balks at the thought of raising another snooker superstar in the family. “Snooker is so boring,” Ding laughs, “my first choice [for my child] would not be this, something else.” Ding says his father didn’t push him to excel at the sport, but rather supported his decision. “I chose this for myself,” he says of his freedom as a child. As for raising his own, “I think I will let mine do the same.”