Masters snooker: Will Yan Bingtao become China’s first world champion after stunning John Higgins?
50-1 outsider Yan Bingtao claimed the coveted Masters trophy with an epic 10-8 comeback victory over former champion John Higgins on his tournament debut. At the age of 20, Yan is the most exciting talent to emerge from China since Ding Junhui, but can Yan succeed where Ding has so far failed by becoming his country's first world champion?
If the Scotsman had snaffled up the smorgasbord of opportunities that came his way with more regularity than the roundabouts in Milton Keynes, he would have ran out a comfortable winner in the 47th final of the celebrated invitational event. If only. That he couldn’t convert desire into fulfilment having led 5-3 and 7-5 will leave him bewildered for some time to come. Unlike his 18-9 flogging by Judd Trump in the world final two years ago, Higgins held a winning hand at the Marshall Arena yet somehow didn’t go all in.
Watch the moment Yan clinches dramatic Masters triumph
That he couldn’t lift a third Masters title 15 years after his second should not detract from Yan’s rousing triumph at the sport’s second most prestigious tournament only four years after he turned professional.
Making his debut as the 12th seed involving the sport’s top 16, this was heady stuff from a figure who turns 21 next month. He already holds the key to the door behind closed doors despite six-times Masters champion Stephen Hendry suggesting success this year should carry an asterisk because it was moved from its traditional home at London’s Alexandra Palace due to the pandemic, an artificial environment replacing 2000 fans clamouring over every shot.
“I had my chances, I’m sick,” said Higgins. “I should have went 6-3 in front and should have been in control to go 8-5 in front. I had a couple of chances in the last frame. I’m gutted, but every credit to him. It’s a brilliant achievement winning it at such a young age.
He could be a definite world champion without a shadow of a doubt.
To put this success into perspective, Yan was not born when Higgins won his first Masters title in 1999. He is the youngest winner of the event since the 19-year-old Ronnie O’Sullivan usurped Higgins 9-3 in the 1995 final. He joins Hendry, John Spencer, Doug Mountjoy, Terry Griffiths and Mark Selby as the only players to win the Masters on their respective debuts.
"We've seen him do it under extreme pressure and you need to be able to perform under pressure to win the Crucible," said O'Sullivan.
I just think he’s going to get stronger and stronger and it will bring other players through as well. I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t win at least one or two world titles.
Having edged out Neil Robertson, Stephen Maguire and defending champion Stuart Bingham 6-5 in three final-frame deciders, he recovered by winning five of the final six frames to reel in the four-times world champion. Buoyed by a slight change in technique, Higgins – at the age of 45 still a formidable force on the old green baize – could not quite emulate the pristine potting that saw him despatch world champion O’Sullivan 6-3 in the quarter-finals in his bid to become the oldest winner in Masters history.
Curiously enough, Yan’s calm exterior and maturity played a decisive part in his opponent’s downfall as he later admitted he won while feeling he hadn’t played well with his acute sense of awareness and correct shot choice carrying the day.
I have imagined how I would celebrate but I am very calm, even though in the last few frames I was not playing very well. But I did not give up.
Bounding out to the Scotland football team’s new unofficial Euro 2020 anthem ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’, the man dubbed the Wizard of Wishaw lost his wand and way the longer the night progressed. ‘Blame It on the Boogie’ would become a more wistful walk-on song choice.
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Higgins led 5-3 after a taut afternoon session, but somehow squandered his advantage in the opening frame of the evening having made a 67 break by missing a black and a red needing one more ball for a 6-3 lead.
Yan rolled in a magical 59 like he was in practice mode to force a re-spotted black which he duly holed to complete the rearguard action. The mood swing was palpable as Higgins then deliberated over the brown before missing a yellow off its spot holding a 31-0 lead in the tenth frame as Yan pieced together a cool 76 to restore parity at 5-5.
Higgins responded with 74 and 116 to steady the ship for a 7-5 lead, but the mid-session interval merely allowed the younger man time to regroup.
Higgins looked on the cusp of an 8-5 lead in the 13th frame, but somehow managed to go in off the black trying to lay a tough snooker behind the pink leading 62-45 with only the colours left. He had another chance late in the frame, but an attempted double on the black wobbled in the jaws as his opponent reduced the deficit to 7-6.
The Higgins’ lead was reduced to rubble as a Yan 103 made it 7-7. Higgins again had chances to establish an 8-7 advantage, but wilted in the moment of truth as the missed opportunities began to exact a mental toll even on the toughest of matchplay minds forged over 29 years in the fire.
'Unbelievable' - Yan steals frame as Higgins misses double on final black
Having made 50 in response to his opponent’s 55, he only needed a mid-distance blue for the frame, but butchered his attempt as Yan returned to clear blue, pink and black. A nerveless 63 from Higgins was enough to make it eight all, but Yan's telling snooker behind the green after Higgins hesitated over the same shot provided the springboard for a run of 70 from his opponent and a 9-8 lead.
With the tension palpable, Higgins had two obvious chances to score heavily in the penultimate frame to force a decider after Yan had broken down, but quickly ran out of position before the kid from Shandong finalised the business at hand with a knock of 64 to secure the Paul Hunter trophy and a £250,000 winner’s cheque.
The focus will quickly turn to Yan’s prospects of becoming China’s first world champion in May six years after becoming the youngest world amateur champion at the age of 14. Is he certain to emulate his success in the professional scene at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield?
This match had the same sort of vibe as the 2005 UK Championship final when 18-year-old Ding Junhui overcame six-times world champion Steve Davis, then aged 48, with a 10-6 victory in the final at the Barbican in York.
Ding was hailed as China’s first world champion-in-waiting, but despite adding two more UK titles and a Masters triumph a decade ago, he has yet to conquer the Crucible. He lost 18-14 to Mark Selby in the 2016 world final, a match watched by over 200 million people in China, but that is the closest he has come at the sport’s blue-chip event.
A Chinese winner of snooker's biggest tournament would provide a salivating scenario for future investment in the sport's biggest market as it attempts to push beyond the traditional televised boundaries of its UK set-up. Is Yan the man for the job representing the world's most populous country? China is a nation addicted to the baize like Blighty in the 1980s.
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Murphy flukes pink and then hits sensational black to win fourh frame
"The local schools and local government invest in the sport out there. They love snooker, and can't get enough of it. When we are over there, we do coaching sessions. And now you start to see it come through.
Yan hasn't just appeared from nowhere. It hasn't been by mistake that Chinese players are over here. More are coming in the years ahead.
Yan Bingtao mit seinem Masters-Trophäe
Image credit: Eurosport
Attempting to become world champion needs fortune as well as fortitude, elements that came to the fore for Yan at the Masters, particularly in the first round against Robertson when he trailed 5-3 and in the final when he punished Higgins’ profligacy at close range while oddly enough at times lacking his trademark conviction from distance.
Snooker can sometimes be a frustrating game of chance, one where more often than not players come up well short of their own needs, but such is the cut-throat nature of the competition that winning one tournament a season can be deemed a glorious success story.
A star was born at the Masters, but it has been burning brightly for some time. At the age of 17, Yan was one frame away from becoming the youngest ranking event winner of all time when he led Mark Williams 8-7 in the Northern Ireland Open final in 2017 only for the Welshman to squeak through 9-8 in Belfast months before lifting his third world title.
Aged 19, a burning dedication to the sport saw him lift his first trophy at the Riga Masters in 2019 becoming the first teenager since Ding in 2006 to carry off a ranking event.
Hunger and determination
Still in his formative years, Yan has time on his side and then some when you consider Higgins is a quarter of a century older, but the 17 days of the World Championship is a different movie from the relative middle distance run of the Masters where 28 frames are needed to emerge triumphant.
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When you reach the semi-finals of the World Championship, a top-16 seed would have won 36 frames. He needs another 35 over five more days to win the tournament. If you are a qualifier these days, you are looking at winning 66 frames to reach the last four. It goes on and on, session after session, day after day. Not so much a celebration of snooker, more strength of endurance when you are wheeled out under the light bulbs in the Sheffield grind.
“Yan is 20 years old but seems to have the experience of someone who’s 40,” said the UK champion Robertson.
I can’t praise him highly enough. He’s got all the attributes, the hunger, the determination to try to win these events and that’s really good to see from a young player. You see a lot of them are on social media non-stop, they care more about how they look coming out of the swimming pool than what they do on a snooker table.
“So you’ve got to credit the guys who want to make things happen in their career.”
Yan appears to have a calming exterior suitable to deal with the constant turbulence of the table, but appearances can be deceiving. The sport’s undisputed number one Trump, unfortunately forced to miss the Masters due to a positive coronavirus test, has only one world title to his name as does the sport’s number two Robertson. Neither Trump, Robertson or the rest of the dog-eat-dog field is going anywhere any time soon.
To illustrate the point, a genuine goliath of the game in Higgins remains without a ranking trophy since the 2018 Welsh Open. Expectancy followed by failure has a cumulative effect on snooker careers, mentally and emotionally more draining and dispiriting in snooker than other sports.
Emerging from the pack in snooker's era of exceptionalism needs a greater thought process than merely cue ball control.
The ball potting prodigy that is Yan suddenly has a masterful old head on young shoulders as he sets about a career path full of possibility. Sometimes such inexperience can be invaluable.