So proud: Zhou and Yan with the World Cup trophy
Zhou Yuelong and Yan Bingtao will be making their debuts in the Champion of Champions next month, as two players at the forefront of Chinese snooker’s next generation.
It’s ten years since Ding Junhui became the first Chinese player to win a world ranking event, beating Stephen Hendry in the final of the China Open in Beijing. At the time it seemed likely that Ding was at the crest of a wave and that a succession of players from the Far East would follow his lead.
In fact that has not been the case. Liang Wenbo and Xiao Guodong have both enjoyed success, reaching the final of ranking events. But, other than Ding, no Chinese player has regularly figured among the world’s top 16.
Nevertheless, the snooker boom continues apace in China, with five World Snooker Tour events staged in the country this season, and television audiences into the tens of millions. At grassroots level, participation levels are incredibly high, with many schools including snooker on their curriculums. The WPBSA and Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association have a training academy in Beijing and both are committed to the continued expansion of snooker in Asia.
And now a crop of gifted young cuemen from the Orient is emerging.
Last June in Wuxi, the Nongfu Spring World Cup was contested by 24 two-man teams, featuring an array of the world’s best players including England’s Mark Selby and Stuart Bingham, Scottish pair John Higgins and Stephen Maguire and Welsh duo Michael White and Mark Williams. Representing China’s B team were Zhou and Yan, aged just 17 and 15 respectively. But what they were giving away in experience they more than made up for in enthusiasm and raw talent.
After coming through the group phase, they knocked out Australia and Wales to reach the final before thrashing Scotland 4-1 to take the trophy and the $200,000 top prize. As an added bonus, both players have earned a place in the Champion of Champions.
Higgins said after the final: “Right from the first shot they were too good. They are only young boys and they played unbelievable snooker.” And Maguire added: “They were potting balls from anywhere. I think we have seen two future World Champions.”
Zhou and Yan both enjoyed outstanding amateur careers – both winning the IBSF world title – and their triumph in Wuxi suggests that they both have what it takes to thrive at the highest. Zhou turned pro in 2014 and enjoyed some promising results, reaching the last 32 of two ranking events. Yan could have joined him on the main tour this year but wasn’t able to secure the relevant visa so decided to stay in China to finish his education, with the intention to turn pro next season. Fortunately he was eligible for a one-week visa to compete in Coventry.
Zhou is based at the Star Snooker Academy in Sheffield where he practises with many of the best overseas players, including Ding.
“I really enjoy living in England,” he said. “I like it very much. Sheffield is great city and I am able to concentrate on enjoying the thing I love – playing snooker. I have a lot about my game I need to improve. For example, I need to concentrate on every shot, especially crucial shots. I need to relax my mood during matches, gain good experience and improve in every match I play.
“I have been a professional for one and a half years now. I have played so many tough matches and gained a vast amount of experience. That makes me more focused on practice and working harder. Playing against high level professionals helps me improve and makes me mentally stronger.
“My first target this season is to secure my main tour card. And I hope I can get to the quarter finals of a ranking event, that would be fantastic. My biggest long-term ambition is to win the World Championship and more snooker events.”
As for taking a place among the elite line up in Coventry, Zhou added: “I am very excited to have the chance to play against the other best players in the world. I believe it is a great chance for me to learn. I am really looking forward to it.
“Winning the World Cup together with Yan Bingtao has made me a totally new person. I feel more confident about my future snooker career, and I have more motivation to achieve more and win more matches.”
Ranking titles won by non-British/Irish players
Ding Junhui (China) 11
Neil Robertson (Australia) 10
James Wattana (Thailand) 3
Marco Fu (Hong Kong) 2
Cliff Thorburn (Canada) 2
Bob Chaperon (Canada) 1
Silvino Francisco (South Africa) 1
Zhou and Yan are not alone among China’s new wave. Some fellow players consider Zhao Xintong the most promising. The 18-year-old, also based in Sheffield, just missed out on a place on the tour this season, losing in the final round of Q School, but has scored some fine results as an amateur, notably a 6-0 thrashing of Stuart Carrington in the International Championship qualifiers.
Then there’s the likes of Lyu Haotian, Zhang Yong and Lu Ning – all aged 21 or under and considered to have the potential to climb to the top level. Adjusting to living in the UK, leaving family and friends thousands of miles away, is a key part of the challenge.
Leading Chinese journalist Tai Chengzhe believes it won’t be long before one or more of these players follows in the footsteps of Ding and lifts a major trophy.
“Zhou, Yan and Zhao all belong to the exciting new generation of Chinese players who receive systematic training at the CBSA academy,” said Tai. “They showed huge talent in the early stage of their career and that’s exactly what Ding did at the age of 15 or 16.
“Winning the World Cup in Wuxi proved the great quality of this upcoming group of prodigies. It’s only a matter of time one of these talents wins a big tournament, possibly even one of the Triple Crown events.”