UK Championship 2021 - Does Luca Brecel and Zhao Xintong final showdown signal a new era for snooker?
The 45th UK Championship final will be contested between two players from outside the top 16 for the first time since the tournament became a ranking event in 1984. Does the match between young guns Luca Brecel and Zhao Xintong herald a new era or is it merely a quirk of fate in a familiar snooker story? Stream the UK Championship and much more top snooker action live and on-demand on discovery+.
'What an unbelievable start!' Brecel makes it three centuries in first three frames
Kyren Wilson professed he had “gone from the hunter to being the hunted” after slaying the record seven-times winner Ronnie O’Sullivan 6-5 in a rousing UK Championship quarter-final on Friday afternoon. A quite apt summation one might say when a figure nicknamed the 'The Warrior' was taken out by a bloke dubbed the 'Belgian Bullet' less than 24 hours later.
Luca Brecel’s aim was straight, true and deliciously tasty in a devastating exhibition of snooker sorcery at the York Barbican. Brecel compiled breaks of 130, 112, 105, 102, 97, 80 and 59 to bury alive the world number five Wilson’s hopes with a 6-4 butchering that was far more comprehensive than it sounds.
Despite timely contributions of 121, 83 and 69, Wilson departed the scene amid an overwhelming sense of loss and perhaps a feeling of lost opportunity following his epic victory over O’Sullivan and what that had hinted at, but could have no complaints after being largely outplayed by the young gunhand from Dilsen-Stokkem in Belgium, who rose to the occasion with more majesty than Pele or Maradona in the Azteca.
Getting your timing right is the hallmark of all true titans in sport. Brecel ran in four centuries against Wilson – and probably needed them as his mission statement for the day. Yet he only compiled one in the previous five rounds, a 112 break coming in an aromatic 6-5 victory over Tom Ford in the last 64.
His victory over Wilson in the semi-finals on Saturday afternoon was perhaps not 26-year-old Brecel coming of age – he lifted the China Championship in 2017 with a 10-5 triumph against Shaun Murphy – but it could be a key staging post on his journey to enlightenment. Much will depend on whether or not he can take the next step against the equally delightful Zhao Xintong in the final on Sunday.
“It feels incredible to put up a performance like that in such a big game,” said Brecel. “If I play like that again in the final I don’t think I’m beatable."
Of course, everything that is good about Brecel can also be applied to Zhao, 24, after his 6-1 dismissal of world number 14 Barry Hawkins, the lone survivor of the world’s top 16, in the second semi-final on Saturday night that witnessed him piece together hefty knocks of 100, 81, 78, 78, 78 and 74. Hawkins offered up a rancid performance despite drubbing Andy Hicks 6-1 in the quarter-finals and was never going to live with Zhao on such unsettling, unsubstantiated visits to the table.
Brecel’s blunderbuss has hardly been in need of oiling all week at the York Barbican but his range will be tested against Zhao, an asset busy chasing big game like Ernest Hemingway in his element back in the day.
It is difficult to believe his best so far over the past five years is a 6-4 semi-final defeat to world champion Mark Selby in the 2018 China Championship. These are remarkably small returns for such outrageous talent, but perhaps that is about to change as Zhao bids to emulate celebrated compatriot Ding Junhui as a UK winner.
Zhao rolled in 110, 83, 70, 68 and 59 in recovering from 5-3 behind to usurp the four-times world champion John Higgins 6-5 in the last 32. Quite a feat when one considers the rejuvenated and slimmed down Scotsman had reached the previous three major finals this season.
‘I couldn’t really dream of it!’ – Brecel on astonishing semi-final win
Arguably more impressive was Zhao’s victory over the Thai speed merchant Thepchaiya Un-Nooh in the last 64. Un-Nooh made five centuries in a 6-1 annihilation of seven-times world champion Stephen Hendry in the opening round, but was denied by Zhao on the final black of the final frame 6-5. Zhao revelled in 120, 114, 92, 56 and 50 in a match played at a ferocious pace.
This final will be contested by two proper players, two likeable lads, who perform the game in the spirit it was intended with fluency that won’t leave the crowd discombobulated by the sludge of safety. Brecel's average shot time was 22.7 seconds against Wilson with Zhao weighing in at 19.8 seconds in lowering Hawkins’ hopes to the ground.
Cue ball control maketh the master cueman and the AST when you are strolling into your next shot rather than covering yards to reach it. Both these aspiring players have it all going on when the mood takes them.
In the first flush of snooker youth, the finalists have a combined age of 50 – three years older than Judd Trump and Mark Allen were in the 2011 UK final – but 51 years younger than Peter Lines and Anthony Hamilton respectively, the two men Zhao and Brecel defeated in the last 16 on their sojourn to this showpiece.
Despite the hyperbole, Brecel is astonishingly ranked at 40 in the world and Zhao at 26 which suggests there is plenty of new ground for this duo to discover. It is putting historical comparison firmly into context when you consider Hendry lifted the first of his seven world gongs at the age of 21 in 1990.
This could yet be a glimpse of the future of snooker, but could also be an outlier. Which it is more likely to be whatever other points are made about the adroitness of both characters. Brecel leads 2-1 on the career head-to-heads, but the final looks wide open with nothing in the betting.
Brecel remains the youngest player to appear at the Crucible Theatre when he lost 10-5 to Stephen Maguire in the World Championship first round aged 17 years and 45 days in 2012.
His ferocious brand of potting left the 2004 UK champion Maguire – who was routed 6-0 by Brecel in the last 32 this year – in admiration of his young opponent's natural attacking instincts, intimating that it was only a matter of time before he became world champion.
"He's a potting machine isn't he?" said Maguire. "He's one of the fastest players I've seen and he's fearless."
Perhaps his time is now, but natural ability is only part of solving the matrix in snooker.
It is all fine and well to proclaim people as wonderful talents in any walk of life, which Brecel and Zhao are, but until trophies are delivered, what is the purpose of quality?
‘That is as good as it gets!’ – Zhao wows with ‘sensational’ shot
Wilson was probably right to be hesitant about taking over O’Sullivan’s mantle as tournament favourite because this event has hardly been one for snooker’s old world order. For the first time since the UK Championship became a ranking event in 1984, when Steve Davis outclassed Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins 16-8, none of the game’s top 16 will contest the final.
It is also the second UK final without a player from the UK after Australian Neil Robertson’s 10-5 win over Liang Wenbo in the 2015 final. It will deliver the fourth non-UK winner of the trophy following Robertson, China's then 18-year-old Ding (2005) and Ireland's Patsy Fagan (1977) and guarantees the champion a Masters spot next month.
With Brecel playing snooker from the Gods against Wilson, the final is an otherworldly event in a sport built on familiarity, tradition and largely used to the same old faces, so to speak.
It would also be premature to predict this will be the start of some future trend. O’Sullivan was unfortunate to encounter Wilson knocking it out of the ball park. As was Wilson when encountering Brecel in the last four.
“Is this the start of a new era in snooker..” asked the world number two Judd Trump on Twitter.
Trump once trounced O’Sullivan 6-2 in the quarter-finals of the Masters in 2012 and one esteemed pundit made that the comment that the “baton” had been passed that day. That was before O’Sullivan won another three world titles, three UKs and three Masters.
There is always the temptation to get carried away. Snooker is not ripe for one player to dominate. Trump has won over half of his 22 ranking titles over the past two years, but has discovered that the ranking system does not even allow you to hold down number one for too long.
‘I thought Trump had been knocked out!’ – Brecel wows with ‘ridiculous’ long red
Expect an air of familiarity to return in the form of O’Sullivan, Selby and Robertson, et al. The men at the summit are simply far too good to lie low for too long.
The final will be a breath of fresh air, but the aroma of the sport’s old guard is likely to linger for some time to come despite such buds of green baize growth in the bleak of early winter.
Perhaps the more pertinent question to ask is this: "Can these two glorious players muscle in on the established pecking order?" It is a point of some intrigue.
Road to the 45th UK Championship final
Round 1: Luca Brecel 6-2 Xu Si
Round 2: Luca Brecel 6-5 Tom Ford
Round 3: Luca Brecel 6-0 Stephen Maguire
Round 4: Luca Brecel 6-1 Anthony Hamilton
Quarter-finals: Luca Brecel 6-2 Anthony McGill
Semi-finals: Luca Brecel 6-4 Kyren Wilson
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
Stream the UK Championship and much more top snooker action live and on-demand on discovery+.