Raw talent. Speedy scoring. Audacious long-potting. Inconsistency. Untapped potential. Those are the words that most snooker fans would have used to describe Zhao Xintong before the 2021 UK Championship. Lagging behind the likes of Yan Bingtao and Zhou Yuelong in China’s elite crop of talented youngsters, Zhao was viewed as one whose potential risked going unfulfilled if he didn’t find some inspiration soon.
Boy, did he find that inspiration. After a run of stunning results in York, Zhao became the second Chinese player after Ding Junhui to win the UK Championship, and just the third man from that nation to win one of snooker’s ‘Triple Crown’ events, joining Ding and Yan on the illustrious list. Finally, the player who had promised so much had delivered a stunning victory in a big tournament.
Zhao’s lengthy pre-tournament odds in the exchange bet on Betdaq gave an indication of just how far down he was in the estimations of most snooker fans and pundits. The 24-year-old made a mockery of those odds, beating established players like John Higgins, Jack Lisowski, Barry Hawkins and Luca Brecel to lift the trophy. There was a moment in his post-final interview where he clenched his tongue and gazed into the distance, as if the magnitude of his achievement was washing over him all at once.
Before Yan’s victory in the Masters back in January, it had been nearly a decade since a player in their 20s lifted a Triple Crown tournament title. The 21-year-old’s victory in Milton Keynes, coupled with Zhao’s success at the UK Championship, has led to suggestions that this could be the beginning of a new era in the sport, where the young talents of the game begin to realise their potential and usurp the game’s established superstars.
Zhao’s performances certainly suggested that he is ready to make the step-up and deliver more consistently. Yes, he was his fast-scoring, long-potting self, but there was a degree of coolness and maturity seasoning his shot selection too, presenting a much more complete version of a player who in the past has been guilty of not fully respecting the safety side of snooker.
Brecel’s journey to the final is also a potential sign that more success could be coming the way of young players in snooker. At 26, the Belgian is Zhao’s senior by a couple of years, but has long been viewed as a player who has the skillset to go far. He won the China Championship in 2017, and after suffering a severe drop in form over the last few years, seems to have rediscovered the best version of himself.
The excitement over Zhao, Brecel, and the rest of snooker’s talented youngsters must be tempered by the fact that the draw opened up very kindly at the UK Championship. The sport’s top players fell in the early stages of the tournament, and while you can only beat what’s put in front of you, Zhao and Brecel’s respective runs to the final could certainly have been more difficult.
We will only know how significant Zhao’s success is a few years down the line. The so-called ‘class of 92’ of Higgins, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams can only hold onto their elite status for so long, and it will be interesting to see what the world rankings look like in five years’ time. Zhao’s victory, and indeed Brecel’s run to the final, will have provided inspiration for so many young snooker players around the world. These things take time, but there is an inexorable feeling that 2021 could prove to be a defining year in the history of this great sport, the UK Championship final a delicious taster of what might lie ahead.