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THE world of snooker is hailing a new Chinese superstar after Yan Bingtao’s victory in the Masters last weekend.
The 20-year-old defeated John Higgins 10-8 in the final in Milton Keynes to become the tournament’s youngest winner since Ronnie O’Sullivan, who overcame Higgins in the 1995 final when both were just 19 years old.
Though China has long been tipped to produce a snooker world champion, it is yet to do so — but many are now backing Yan for such success.
The trail for Chinese players has been blazed by Ding Junhui. The 33-year-old has won 14 ranking events and in 2016 became the first Chinese player to reach a World Championship final, losing 18-14 to Mark Selby.
Though Ding is yet to win the big prize, his success has played a huge part in the growth of the sport in China. The country now has 23 players in the world rankings, making it the second-most represented nation on the tour after England.
“I picked up the cue all because of watching him,” Yan said of Ding back in 2017. “He is like an elder brother to all of us. We worship him.”
Yan became the third Chinese player to win a ranking title when he won the Riga Masters in 2019, joining Ding and Liang Wenbo — who won the English Open in 2016. He’s the second to win the Masters after Ding, who triumphed in the 2011 tournament.
The likes of Zhou Yuelong, Zhao Xintong, Yuan Sijun, Chang Bingyu and a handful of other players could soon join them.
“There are three or four. I think [Yan’s win] is much more significant for Chinese snooker than Ding’s breakthrough on the scene,” O’Sullivan said on Eurosport after last weekend’s final.
“Ding came through on his own and it took a generation for others to follow in his footsteps.
“This is the generation that looked up to Ding, wanted to play snooker because of him and now there are players sitting at home watching Yan Bingtao. This could be quite a significant result for Chinese snooker.”
In recent years, young players have struggled to achieve the kind of success that O’Sullivan and Higgins enjoyed after they burst onto the scene as teenagers in the mid ’90s.
The World Championships have not been won by a player under the age of 25 since a 22-year-old Shaun Murphy defeated Matthew Stevens in the 2005 final. Since then, snooker’s biggest prize has usually been won by more experienced campaigners.
Even current world number one Judd Trump, who was a highly touted young player when he first emerged on the professional circuit at the age of 16, was 29 years old when he won his first World Championship title in 2019.
Snooker can be a difficult sport when it comes to predicting which young player will go on to achieve significant success. Many highly touted players go on to have good careers in the professional game, but going one further and becoming world champion can be difficult — as the likes of Trump and Ding have discovered.
Recent World Championship triumphs have been stories of experience rather than youth. In 2018, a 43-year-old Mark Williams became the oldest world champion since fellow Welshman Ray Reardon defeated Perrie Mans in 1978 aged 45.
O’Sullivan was 44 when he won the 2020 final and became the only player since Joe Davis, who dominated the early decades of the tournament in the 1920s and ’30s, to win a world title more than 19 years after his first.
Yan’s victory against Higgins, in which he presented a calm and composed demeanour throughout, has moved him closer to the front of the queue when predicting world champions of the future.
Snooker commentators and pundits like to pick out an aspect of the game that a player is better at than most others, but with Yan this has proven difficult due to the quality of his all-round game. His manner at the table, which is almost nonchalant at times, may turn out to be his biggest strength.
“The last 20-year-old to have such an all-round game like this is John Higgins,” said BBC pundit and former world champion John Parrott after Yan’s Masters victory.
“You need talent, but his temperament is bulletproof. To be that age and to be so calm and composed when playing for one of our biggest trophies is magnificent.”
O’Sullivan added: “We’ve seen him do it under extreme pressure, you need to perform under pressure to win [the World Championship] at the Crucible.
“I just think he’s going to get stronger and stronger and it’ll bring other players through.”
China will be hugely important to the growth of snooker in years to come, and the game’s popularity in the country has increased rapidly since Ding’s success.
An estimated total of 210 million viewers watched his 2016 final against Selby on China’s national sports channel CCTV5, with more than 42 million tuning in for the afternoon sessions alone.
With Yan now joining Ding in the late rounds of tournaments and a whole host of players ready to join them, this popularity will only snowball.
O’Sullivan believes that by 2025, the majority of ranking-event winners will be Chinese. History shows that these types of predictions can often turn out to be incorrect; but given that some of the most talented young players to emerge since Higgins, Williams and O’Sullivan are Chinese, O’Sullivan may not be too wide of the mark.
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