A rising star

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

JUSTIFYING China's stature as a sporting giant, Jinhui Ding authored a precocious display of masterly snooker to lift the fourth Asian under-21 title at Calcutta Swimming Club's Banquet Hall. Ding's win also signified a symbolic transfer of power since Thailand had won the titles in the first three editions of the continental contest.

Jinhui Ding, the champion.-S. PATRONOBISH

Ding symbolised the discipline and excellence in the Chinese way of regimented training in sports. He performed like a whirlwind - making aggression and accuracy the hallmark of his style - all through the meet and put the final signature of his authority by outclassing Thailand's Pramual Janthat 6-2 in the best-of-11-frames final.

The focus before the start was on the players from India and Thailand - the two traditional powers of the sport. India, enjoying the host's privilege of having two extra players in the team, fielded the top four juniors of the country - Pankaj Advani, Manan Chandra, Saurav Kothari and Mudit Poddar. Thailand for which Anan Terrannon, Paithoon Ponboon and Supoj Saenlah won the last three titles in succession, was represented by the country's top-two - Ruttanon Kematat and Janthat. With Syria withdrawing early, there were 24 players from 13 countries in eight groups of three each. The first two days of the five-day meet saw the group league matches. The top two players from each group progressed to the pre-quarterfinals.

Because of the absence of adequate information, none considered China a credible threat. Ding - joined in his pursuit by compatriot Pengfei Tian - made the Chinese squad formidable and demolished the pre-tournament predictions that fancied the Indians and the Thais for the title. Riding on a better record than Advani, Chandra as the senior received the top billing in the league stage. Advani was seeded third behind Kematat of Thailand. Ding - coming in as an unknown entity - got the seventh spot in the seedings list to head Group 'G' alongside Amin Mohammad Amin Fikree of the UAE and Mehedi Hassan of Bangladesh.

Chandra began well, winning both his best-of-seven-frames Group 'A' matches without losing a frame, while Advani appeared rusty, conceding three frames in his two matches while moving up from Group 'C'.

The best, however, came from the Chinese players. Ding created a storm demolishing both Hasan and Fikree before emerging as the leader from his group. Following up his 4-0 drubbing of Hassan on the first day, Ding was more menacing against Fikree. The 15-year-old Chinese champion worked out breaks of 88, 49, 92 and 103 to astound all with his command over the game. Tian was not as devastating as Ding, but though unseeded he become the Group 'E' topper upsetting the fifth-seeded Tomy Boon Chin Ang of Singapore with a quiet show of precision.

The knock-out stage, beginning with the pre-quarterfinals, had a new seedings list based on the performance percentage of the players in the league stage. Chandra retained the top spot with a 100 per cent record while Ding rose to the fourth spot - performing in the same vein as Chandra - and Tian received the fifth seeding. Advani's subdued showing in the league saw him falling to the sixth place.

The Indian cueists struck form on the first day of the knock-out stage as Chandra and Advani thundered into the quarterfinals. Chandra, playing his last Asian age-group meet, produced successive express breaks in the quickest finish of the day. Advani outscored Chandra in coming up with a fluent 4-0 win against Tommy Boon Chin Ang. The National champion struck a clearance break of 120 - coming quite close to the highest possible 147 - in the second frame to raise visions of the title.

Ding and Tian continued in their usual way. While progressing to the quarterfinals, the former did not run up any superlative breaks in his 4-0 win, but the latter was more prominent, producing a century break in the second frame to whitewash Fikree - the same opponent whom Ding had drubbed in the league stage. Ironically, the wins pitted the Chinese against each other in the quarterfinals. The fancied Thai, Ruttanon Kematat, saw his form deserting him as he was upset by Habib Sabah Mahmood of Bahrain 2-4. The other players making it to the quarterfinals were the two Malaysians, Mun Kit Thean and Keem Ho Moh, who upset the second-seeded Sean Z.A. Ang of Singapore in the last match of the day.

Advani's title aspirations met with a premature end in the quarterfinals as he lost to Thailand's Janthat in a marathon best-of-nine-frame contest stretched to the decider. On the other hand, Chandra dropped his first frame of the tournament playing Habib Mahmood in the quarters, but posted a 5-1 win. Ding emerged the stronger player in the all-China match and conceding only two frames beat Tian. Unseeded Malaysian Keem Ho Moh continued his giant-killing run, beating his seventh seeded compatriot Mun Kit Thean to complete the semifinal line-up.

Ding's appetite for perfection produced the biggest surprise of the meet as the Chinese consumed top-seeded Chandra in the semifinals. Ding produced a menacing show of precision and control right from the beginning. Chandra floundered on the opening frame failing to pot an easy black and Ding made full use of the opportunity, producing a clearance break of 71 to set himself in the winning mode. The next four frames saw Ding repeat his dominance as he made short work of the Indian to win 5-0.

In the other semifinal, a marathon one, Janthat beat the giant-killer Keem Ho Moh 5-4. The match, lasting four and a half hours, extended till the final frame.

Ding's uncanny consistency continued in the final. As he did to Chandra in the semis, Ding made a minnow of the third-seeded Janthat in the title clash, running away with the first four frames despite Janthat's efforts to slow down the game with too much of 'safety-play'. The Thai, however, got some rewards for his defensive efforts as he won two consecutive frames - narrowing Ding's lead to 4-2 - just as the Chinese tried to hasten his win following the customary interval after the first four frames. Despite having made a splendid comeback, Janthat faltered in the seventh frame. Leading 40-16, the Thai fell to an effective snooker by Ding and made successive fouls giving the Chinese eight bonus points and a free-ball to wriggle himself out of the crisis and win the frame 75-46. Having wrapped up the seventh frame, Ding regained his touch and calmly worked his way through to win the eighth frame and the title.

Manan Chandra beat Keem Ho Moh 3-0 (in a best-of-five frames contest) in the third place play-off to reclaim some of his honour. Ding received a crystal trophy and the winner's purse of $1000 while Janthat got $600 as the runner-up. Pankaj Advani got a special award for making the highest break - of 120 in the pre-quarterfinals.

The results (seedings prefixed):

Final: 3-Pramual Janthat (Thai) lost to 4-Jinhui Ding (Chn) 2-6 (33-70, 10-71, 28-78, 12-89, 74-37, 66-55, 46-75, 20-61).

Third place play-off: 1-Manan Chandra (Ind) bt Keem Ho Moh (Mal) 3-0 (81-0, 60-26, 66-43).

Semifinals: 1-Manan Chandra lost to 4-Jinhui Ding 0-5 (16-71, 9-94, 9-82, 25-102, 8-77); 3-Pramual Janthat bt Keem Ho Moh 5-4 (45-54, 31-56, 78-52, 56-52, 72-8, 28-62, 46-51, 87-1, 60-27).

Quarterfinals: 1-Manan Chandra bt 8-Habib Sabah Mahmood (Bah) 5-1 (43-70, 71-9, 64-29, 70-19, 82-33, 58-9); 4-Jinhui Ding bt Pengfei Tian (Chn) 5-2 (8-82, 43-63, 96-7, 76-16, 79-37, 101-30, 106-9); 3-Pramual Janthat bt 6-Pankaj Advani (Ind) 5-4 (36-77, 61-62, 66-41, 62-24, 57-46, 64-43, 14-102, 23-64, 58-21); 7-Mun Kit Thean (Mal) lost to Keem Ho Moh 2-5 (62-36, 30-76, 63-49, 27-60, 20-60, 40-66, 41-61).

AT the tender age of 15, Jinhui Ding possessed enough grit and tact to demolish all the seniors in his country and win the senior National snooker title. Soon after, the young lad from Jiang Su province in China travelled to India to triumph in the continental contest for the juniors. This speaks all about his commitment to reach the pinnacle.

Chinese coach Guo Hua, who accompanied the team to Kolkata, said that Ding is among the crop of an increasing number of youngsters taking up the sport in China, which is considered the sleeping giant in this arena. Ding practises around eight hours a day at the Guohua Snooker Club - where he claims to have attained the highest break of 147 while training - in Guang Zhou, where he lives in China. He started playing at the age of nine and gave up formal schooling two years back to take seriously to the sport. His coach said that Ding takes private lessons at home to complete his elementary education and is considering moving to London to become a professional, very soon. Getting his coach to translate, Ding said that his success in the Asian meet has strengthened to his resolve to join the highly-competitive professional world. He hoped his federation would extend financial help initially as he tries to find a groove outside his country.

Around two million people play the game in China and it is becoming increasingly popular. Added to this is the fact that the country also manufactures all the equipment, including the tables, thereby reducing the overhead expenses incurred in importing these items. In an effort to increase snooker's scope, the sport will soon be introduced in the school curriculum all over the country, Ding said.