Who is the richest snooker player in the world? Ronnie O’Sullivan, whose career tournament winnings passed £11 million recently? Mark Selby, who first attained the coveted No1 ranking in September 2011, held it on and off for the next four years, then made it his own from February 2015 to March 2019? Stephen Hendry, now retired, who won the World Championship a record seven times? Or Steve Davis, who was the main man throughout the ’80s, the ‘snooker loopy’ decade?
No. None of the above. The richest snooker player in the world is Ding Junhui.
For most top snooker players, tournament winnings are the mainstay of their income. OK, some of them may have the odd personal sponsor – Mark Williams, one of the greatest players in the history of the game and still ranked No3 at the age of 44, wears waistcoats displaying the logos of Ron Skinner & Sons, a Tredegar car dealer – but the fees they earn him cannot be huge. For Ding things are different. Nowhere in the world is snooker more popular than in his native China, and he is by a country mile the most successful Chinese player in the history of the game. He is a superstar there, a household name, a man who is mobbed in the streets of Shanghai, which is one of the reasons why he lives in Sheffield instead. A graduate of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where he studied business administration and management, he has accrued dozens of lucrative endorsement deals with companies keen that he promote their products in the world’s most populous country. A 26-episode cartoon series, Dragon Ball Number One, was broadcast on Chinese TV in 2010, chronicling his rise from shy boy to snooker deity. You cannot imagine a cartoon series about Williams being televised in the UK, with or without the backing of Ron Skinner & Sons.
Ding has won 13 ranking tournaments but has not done so for more than two years (the 2017 World Open) and, having been world No1 in the past, he has let his ranking slip to its current No16. You sometimes feel, watching him in the early stages of tournaments, facing players only a fraction as gifted as he, that he is struggling to find the motivation to dig deep. As a result, too often he fails to beat numpties (as O’Sullivan calls them) to whom by rights he should never lose. Is it because the prize money no longer matters enough to him?
Only he knows. But, over the past few days, in York, where the latter rounds of the UK Championship have been played, he has snapped back to something approaching his best form. He beat O’Sullivan 6-4 in their last-16 match, and will play Stephen Maguire in today’s final. He will want to trouser the £200,000 first prize, of course he will, but Maguire will be hungrier. It will be a fascinating contest. Watch it live on either BBC2 or Eurosport 1.