2004 : Enter the Dragon
Whilst I was never a fan of the Wildcard Round, this year did prove to be something special in that regard. World Snooker had granted an entry to 16yr old IBSF U21 Champion, Ding Junhui in his first season as a professional and a complete unknown. Although he had to be quite promising to be afforded this honour, I felt it likely that the combination of live TV exposure, a vast arena plus crowd, and a wily, experienced opponent in Joe Perry would mean he wouldn't live up to hype, at least on this occasion.
Boy, was I wrong.
Breaks of 58, 62, & 108 took him sailing into a 3-0 lead. Perry couldn't get a look-in! And although the cagey Fenlander did manage to get a foothold with a 68 of his own in the next, the youngster added runs of 118, 61 & 55 in the second half of the match to run out a comfortable 6-3 victor, and move on to a 1st round match with Stephen Lee, then a major force in the game (world no.5)
No less impressive was his showing when the Lee match came round; even after his exploits so far, I didn't expect him to trouble the portly west country potter, especially after Lee took the first comfortably. But Ding struck again, an 84 levelling matters in the second. As he moved effortlessly into a 3-1 lead, I was beginning to believe the youngster could pull off another major shock. After the interval, when an 89 and an 81 in consecutive frames helped him to move into a 5-2 lead, I was even starting to think he could win the whole damn thing!
Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for Ding, and when the next went to a black ball finish I felt if he couldn't get over the line here, he'd eventually buckle under the extra know-how of the favourite and so it transpired; Lee took that 8th frame, and the following three to bag his quarter-final spot. He'd been given a major scare, though, and this was one Chinese youngster to definitely keep an eye on next season...
What a debut!