Yan emerges as the best of snooker’s next generation

Yan emerges as the best of snooker’s next generation

Evening all. I’ve been a bit quiet on here for the past week or so because I’ve been in the middle of moving house. Generally speaking, I enjoy moving house about as much as I do going to the dentist. Both activities consume all my time, energy and in many cases will to live. But while one can avoid the dentist until absolutely necessary – no-one in medical uniform has peered into my mouth for many moons – a house move often creeps up on you unexpectedly. This, for example, was my fifth relocation in as many years. If you need someone to gaffer tape cardboard boxes, I’m your man.

But unlike most of my recent house moves, this one was voluntary. With the pandemic raging on and making in-person meetings a practical impossibility, my girlfriend and I have decided to flee the big city and move to Oaxaca for a few months. A beautiful colonial city in southern Mexico, Oaxaca was one of my first stops when I initially landed in Mexico in 2015. I have visited every year since. Outside of the titan that is Mexico City, Oaxaca is the gastronomical, cultural and artistic heart of the country. It is the home of Benito Juarez and Francisco Toledo, of tlayudas and mole. It has a certain magic that is hard to describe. So far, I have spent most of my time drinking fantastic quantities of mezcal and wandering around, in as straight a line as possible, its cobbled streets. It’s going well.

I digress. I wanted to talk today about Yan Bingtao’s sensational triumph at snooker’s Masters last week. The Chinese player, who was debuting at the tournament, completed his fairy-tale run at the event by beating four-time world champion and snooker legend John Higgins 10-8 in the final. That followed three successive 6-5 victories over Neil Robertson, Stephen Maguire and defending champion Stuart Bingham. Yan, who doesn’t turn 21 until February, has long been touted as a talented player. Last week he became the youngest Masters champion since Ronnie O’Sullivan in 1995. Yan has come good on his potential in stunning fashion.

The more I reflect on his performance, the more it amazes me. The world number 11 came into the tournament as a 50-1 rank outsider with the bookies. His only previous tournament victory was at the 2019 Riga Masters, a minor ranking event in Latvia. He has won just a single match at the Crucible, snooker’s flagship tournament, and arrived in Milton Keynes in pretty dire form with four second-round exits from seven tournaments so far this season. For him to win the Masters, an elite tournament featuring the world’s top 16 players, is impressive and surprising in equal measure.

However much it shocked the snooker world, however, Yan’s title run in Milton Keynes wasn’t entirely out of nowhere. Ever since he teamed up with Zhou Yuelong to win the World Cup as a 15-year-old in 2015, he has been steadily rising the ranks of the game. In 2017, during just his second year on the professional tour, he was just one frame away from beating three-time World Champion Mark Williams in the final of the Northern Ireland Open. And last year he reached three ranking semifinals – including at the UK Championship – and reached another final at the Players’ Championship in Southport. Those results were enough to see him break into the top-16 and thus qualify for this event.

Yan’s style of play is refreshingly different to most of the other young players coming through today. With almost 100 centuries to his name, he clearly lacks nothing for talent in the break-building department. Indeed he completely out-scored Higgins in the final, notching a 103 and three more breaks of 50+ to come back and take the title from 7-5 down. But while the fashion these days is to play gung-ho, all-out-attack snooker regardless of the match situation, Yan does not shy away from the grittier tactical side of the game. He seems to revel in safety battles and thrives when frames become scrappy – a trait that likely stands him in good stead in high-pressure situations like final-frame deciders.

Given his relative inexperience, this maturity and understanding of the game is great to see. “Yan is 20 years old but seems to have the experience of someone who’s 40,” Robertson said after their first-round match last week.

Yan’s victory is also good for the game in a more general sense. Snooker has always been dominated by players from the so-called “Home Nations” of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. And despite its growing popularity in China over the past couple of decades, the sport largely remains dominated by the old world with 12 of the current top-16 hailing from the UK. If it wants to become a truly global sport, snooker needs a more diverse group of players competing for the top prizes.

Fortunately, Yan has some reinforcements in that area. While world number nine Ding Junhui and Australian world number two Robertson remain the most consistent of the Eastern Bloc (as it were), there are a total of 10 non-British players now in the world’s top-32. Zhou, Yan’s World Cup winning partner, is just 22-years-old but is quickly making a name for himself with a semifinal appearance at the UK Championship this year and a current ranking of 21. 23-year-old Zhao Xintong has also been improving steadily, and 30-year-old Li Hang had a major breakthrough this year with a semifinal run at the Scottish Open. There are also players from Thailand, Iran and Belgium in the top-50.

Step by step and frame by frame snooker – a sport in which players still compete in tuxedos – is steadily becoming woke.

Right, I think I’ll leave it there for today. Its getting on and I fancy a wander around town before it gets dark. I’ll be back here with more on Friday. Till then.

—What did you make of Yan’s Masters win? Let me know in the comments section below!—