‘He teaches me so much’ – Why UK champion Zhao Xintong is part of Ronnie O'Sullivan's snooker legacy
Zhao Xintong produced one of the greatest performances in the history of the UK Championship with a rousing 10-5 win over Luca Brecel in the 45th final of the iconic event on Sunday evening. Desmond Kane takes a look at what the future might hold for the charismatic Chinese player as he bids to emulate the sport's greats. Stream the top snooker action live and on-demand on discovery+.
‘Bigger and better things!’ - Zhao seals UK Championship with another flourish
In scenic York – an outpost once invaded by the Vikings in the ninth century – Zhao Xintong, fighting out of the ancient city of Xi'an in China, home of the Terracotta Army, completed his own 21st century sporting coup at a historic 45th UK Championship final on Sunday night.
Zhao’s rousing 10-5 success against a slightly misfiring ‘Belgian Bullet’ Luca Brecel in a quite majestic final between two supreme rising talents has prompted much wonderment about how far the fearless, charismatic and largely carefree potter can go on the green baize following his startling takeover of the UK.
In many aspects of his outlook, the unrelenting nature of his performance reminded you of his compatriot, the 18-year-old Ding Junhui upstaging the six-times world champion Steve Davis – then 30 years older and contesting his 100th career final – 10-6 in the 2005 showpiece at the York Barbican.
"He's got a great cue action, a great all-round game," said Davis about Ding that night. "He's aggressive, but it's considered aggression."
Some 16 years on, Davis could easily have been assessing the quite glorious goings on at this UK Championship which saw the courteous and serenely cool Zhao compile runs of 120, 99, 87, 79, 78, 61 and 56 with outrageous ease in lifting his first major trophy in breathtaking style from his maiden final.
Interestingly enough, a 16-year-old Zhao, entering as a wildcard, rode roughshod over Davis in the 2013 International Championship qualifying round in Chengdu with a 6-1 victory that saw his vanquished opponent tip him for future riches.
"This boy was astonishingly good and better than anybody I have ever seen at that age – and that includes (fellow world champion) Ronnie O'Sullivan! He outplayed me,” commented Davis. “I didn’t see anybody jumping up and down in the air when he beat me.
"It didn’t seem to come as a surprise to anybody. He certainly wasn’t fazed about playing me.”
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery in any walk of life, Zhao’s performance was akin to Rocket Ronnie in his pomp such was the audacious and daring nature of his attitude.
Even when playing safe, there is a willingness to open up balls rather than getting sunk by the thin gruel of long, languid, spirit-crushing frames. The vibrant Brecel made 133 in the second frame after rolling in four centuries in his 6-4 win over Kyren Wilson on Saturday, but toiled to keep pace under the strain.
‘He is about 70% of the player he can be!’ – O’Sullivan on Federer-like Zhao
Like any clinical champion in any sport, the best ones tend to smell chum in the water. Zhao knew Brecel was in trouble and never shirked from the job at hand after leading 5-3 in the afternoon.
“I don’t think I’ve seen someone play so good for so long, he just played the same the whole way through and was just amazing," said Brecel.
"It would be good if me, Zhao, Jack Lisowski and Judd Trump were all in the top 16, I think it’s good for snooker and exciting. I shouldn’t be too down on myself, I had a good week. It’s just a shame I didn’t play my best in the final.”
Like the seven-times UK winner O’Sullivan, Zhao's technique is well-founded and the momentum formidable, very similar to the record 37-times ranking event not just in how he addresses the ball, but in his holistic approach to the sport. When he gets on a roll, he is a spectator's delight.
Zhao – whose previous best run was reaching the 2018 China Championship semi-finals when he lost 6-4 to world champion Mark Selby – plays the game properly in the modern era. He has all the attributes to succeed O’Sullivan as the game’s natural born thriller, a point addressed in the aftermath of his success in York by placing the emphasis firmly on entertainment.
“Still cannot believe it, I have won UK Championship,” said Zhao. “Thanks for everyone’s big support. I will keep working hard and keep playing entertaining snooker.”
‘That is as good as it gets!’ – Zhao wows with ‘sensational’ shot
For years, the conversation in and outside snooker circles has centred around a bleak landscape without O’Sullivan and the unparalleled frisson and vision the snooker GOAT brings to his vocation.
His absence might prompt natural shrinkage, but the future is bright when you study the joyous antics of Zhao and Brecel at this event and Trump’s ongoing fixation with being a crowd-pleaser while competing for trophies.
Shaun Murphy, Neil Robertson, Mark Williams, Mark Allen and Lisowski are other enlivening figures who adhere to similar standards.
Winning trophies should come as a natural by-product of entertainment, a point that has never been lost on O’Sullivan in trying to marry the two demands of his very essence.
His legacy is already assured, but continues to be seen in burgeoning talent from China such as Zhao. Golden generations tend to gift their respective sports future talent as part of the natural process of evolution.
Zhao first picked up a cue at the age of eight and has been fascinated by the game beyond even his love of basketball and football since his formative years.
“Snooker is my first love,” he said. “When I was 10, my parents bought me a snooker table at home and I practised every day at home. Of course, Ronnie was my favourite player. He teaches me so much, thank you.”
At 24, he is six years older than Ding was when lifting his first major ranking title, a 9-5 win over the seven-times world champion Stephen Hendry in the 2005 China Open, but perhaps being a late developer might be no bad thing.
‘That is so difficult!’ - Zhao wows again in UK Championship semi-final
Unlike Ding, who had the weight of China’s sporting expectation on his shoulders when he heralded his arrival as a major contender, the rising cast of successors have benefited from such adventures over the past two decades.
It is easy to forget Ding is still only 34 such has been his longevity, only a decade older than Zhao, who became the fourth non-UK player to lift the UK title. It bookends a year when 20-year-old compatriot Yan Bingtao became the fifth man from outside the UK to carry off the Masters.
I actually feel a bit sorry for Ding. I've known him since he was 15 and he came over to the UK. He's always been in the spotlight and has always been an amazing player, but I think the pressure has ultimately held him back from winning the World Championship, the biggest tournament there is.
"He's won everything else and it is no coincidence why he hasn't quite managed it at the Crucible. That is my view on it."
The artifice of the sport’s debatable self-styled ‘Triple Crown’ is never better illustrated than when discussing the all-encompassing importance of the World Championship in relation to Ding.
Ding has made off with 14 ranking titles and the Masters, but his career has been viewed through the prism of failing to become China’s first world champion, failing to bring back the big one to the world’s most populous country of 1.44 billion people.
Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White was Masters winner in 1984 and UK champion in 1992 decades before the ‘Triple Crown’ became part of the conversation, invented as a marketing ploy over the past decade. White is not recalled as a major winner, but is fondly remembered as the man who lost six world finals in 1984, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994.
“It was fantastic from start to finish and a worthy winner. He will win many, many trophies.”
'He's here to stay' - White expects Zhao to win 'many trophies'
'China's wait for a world champion'
Being a snooker champion from China is a blessing due to the widespread interest in cue sports, but also a curse as Ding has discovered. Without the world title to his name, he is unfairly viewed as a nearly man.
Zhao, Yan, Ding, Zhou Yuelong and countless others will all share the burden until China finally plants its flag at the Crucible Theatre. Like walking on the moon, it will be a momentous day for snooker when that landmark occasion finally arrives.
Taking the Silk Road from Xi'an to ultimate glory on Norfolk Street in Sheffield is already on Zhao's mind after some karaoke and vodka to celebrate his UK victory.
Probably not as much as drinking Canada Dry like big Bill Werbeniuk back in the day, but at least there is a nod to the sport's origins story somewhere in there.
“I’m going to go home, get a good sleep, and maybe tomorrow do karaoke," he said. "I will sing We Are the Champions! I will try next year to be world champion.”
Zhao was yesterday drawn with the four-times world champion John Higgins in the first round of the Masters next month, a man he defeated 6-5 from 5-3 behind in the last 32 on his road to the UK crown, but will not participate in the Scottish Open this week.
A 4-2 defeat to 18-year-old countryman Lei Peifan in the first round of the event is a stark reminder that snooker dominance tends to be a weekly occurrence these days rather than the yearly dynasties enjoyed by Davis and Hendry in bygone eras.
A doctor from Beijing once placed a £20 bet at odds of 500-1 back in 1997 on a Chinese-born player winning the world title by 2010.
That dream has yet to be realised some 23 years later, but the day is drawing closer.
On Zhao’s current trajectory, it feels and looks like only a matter of time. Perhaps sooner than even he expects.
A star is born: How Zhao conquered the UK
Round 1: Zhao Xintong 6-4 Yuan Sijun
Round 2: Zhao Xintong 6-5 Thepchaiya Un-Nooh
Round 3: Zhao Xintong 6-5 John Higgins
Round 4: Zhao Xintong 6-4 Peter Lines
Quarter-finals: Zhao Xintong 6-2 Jack Lisowski
Semi-finals: Zhao Xintong 6-1 Barry Hawkins
Final: Zhao Xintong 10-5 Luca Brecel
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